In today’s retrospective we are going to be taking a look at the original incarnation of Imagine Software, particularly focusing on the fabled ‘Mega Games’.
Imagine Software was a UK video games developer based in Liverpool which although existing only for a brief period of time (in the early 1980s), had a major impact on the UK games industry. Imagine initially produced software for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Commodore VIC 20 and quickly rose to prominence. Imagine was noted, and respected at the time, for its ‘polished’, high-budget approach to both packaging and advertising (not then common in the UK). As we shall see in this retrospective, it was also known for its often exuberant self-promotion and over ambition.
Imagine the possibilities
Imagine produced a range of great games during its time, but it is the story of the ‘Mega Games’, games which were never released and who’s development quickly lead to the downfall of the company, that I want to concentrate on.
What are these fabled games? Well there were six planned, but many will have never heard of any of them.. ..even those with some knowledge of this story will have probably only heard of ‘Psyclapse’ and ‘Bandersnatch’; the former panned for the Commodore 64 and the latter for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. ‘Bandersnatch’ was to be written by John Gibson and Ian Wetherburn and ‘Psyclapse’ by Eugene Evans and Dawn Jones.
Imagine Software was riding high on a wave of success in 1983, they had a succession of hits with titles such as ‘Stonkers’ and ‘Alchemist’. But the constant specter of piracy plagued the company and they wanted to do something about it. Their concern lead to the development of a novel idea.. ..why not include hardware with the game? Hardware that would be needed in order for the game to run!
Imagine could have responded to this idea with a simple ‘dongle’ device.. ..but they were ambitious and really wanted to make an impact. It is rumoured it was Mike Butler (one of the founders) who suggested that the hardware could also contain extra memory, maybe even custom chips to make the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 do things they weren’t normally capable of. You could then create ‘Mega Games’ for each system.. ..the games would have to be really special to recoup the additional cost of development and producing the hardware. Indeed, it was estimated that each ‘Mega Game’ would need to sell for c. £30 to £40.. ..that might seem reasonable now (not adjusting for inflation), but in the mid-eighties this was an incredibly high price for games software.. ..most games retailed at c. £5, even the very best releases rarely ever eclipsed the £9.99 barrier.
The development of the games was typically (for Imagine) heavily promoted with several ‘teaser‘ adverts appearing in computing magazines of the time.
Only one of the planned six ‘Mega Games’ actually got coded.. ..it became clear during a very revealing BBC documentary (part of their ‘Commercial Breaks’ season) that ‘Psyclapse’ was true vapourware, being little more than a simple plan on paper. It is also estimated that even ‘Bandersnatch’ was only ever c. 30% completed.
Although neither of these games were ever finished, they did leave their mark on gaming history.
Two other games were also planned for imminent development, but probably never coded; ‘Hero’ and ‘Startrader’, both for release on the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. John Heap and Daryl Dennis were to code the Spectrum games and Dave Colclough and Marc Dawson the Commodore 64 ones.
Apparently not all employees at Imagine were convinced about the ‘Mega Game’ idea and it has been suggested that Bruce Everiss, a key employee at Imagine, had tried to stop them being made; suggesting “it was crazy” and “would never work“. But collectively Imagine decided to press on.. ..and things started to go wrong, very wrong, very quickly.
What happened to the ‘Mega Games’?
Although never finished the ‘Mega Games’ did in some ways live on in other games produced by both Denton Designs and Psygnosis. If you play ‘Gift from the Gods’ or ‘Frankie Goes to Hollywood’ you can see the type of game play that was intended for ‘Psyclapse’. But we should concentrate on, and talk about, ‘Bandersnatch’ as this was at least partially coded.
The rights to the game were acquired by company called Finchspeed, itself formed by Dave Lawson and Ian Hetherington from Imagine. It was initially offered to Sinclair Research, as a working version had been coded and completed on the Sinclair QL, but with their usual wisdom Sinclair declined.
Bandersnatch begat Brataccas as Psyclapse begat Psygnosis
Upon rejection from Sinclair, Lawson and Hetherington formed Psygnosis, adapting the name of their new company from the name of the abandoned ‘Psyclapse’ (indeed some initial Psgynosis games were released under the Psyclapse label). The game was renamed ‘Brataccas’ and ported over to then emerging Motorola 68000 based machines that were coming to prominence at the time.
You control the protagonist, Kyne, a genetic engineer. Kyne is trying to clear his name after being framed by the government for refusing to assist in the creation of genetically assisted super-soldiers. The evidence he needs can only be found on the distant asteroid ‘Brataccas’. The asteroid is a law-less place (sort of a ‘wild west’) and Kyne needs to talk to many characters to gain the evidence, many of which of are highly corrupt. In many ways I think this story leans towards some of the Mars colonies described in the excellent ‘The Martian Chronicles’ novel by Ray Bradbury.
The world is displayed as a series of rooms, some with lifts and other with teleports. It pre-dates side-scrolling games and is somewhat reminiscent of ‘Impossible Mission’ by Expyx in appearence. The graphics are clearly derived from its Sinclair QL origins and you actually feel like you are playing it on a QL, even the distinctive QL colour palette was retained. Kyne could move, pick things up/drop them and talk to NPC’s, who were completely controlled by the computer and often had their own agenda’s. If Kyne fell from one level to another he would drop what he was carrying, only for it (more often than not) to be picked up by another NPC.. ..this was extremely irritating and ruined the game play.. ..it was also not the only issue.
Moving Kyne around was achieved by moving the mouse in the direction you wanted him to travel, but the control was imprecise and the game notoriously difficult to play. In addition, talking was achieved via speech bubbles, giving the game a cartoon-ish look. Unfortunately the speech bubbles could quickly fill up with text and it was difficult, often impossible, to read what was in them.
As such, the game received very mixed reviews.
The cover artwork was painted by fantasy artist Roger Dean, who would go on to provide artwork for many of Psygnosis’s titles. The same image was also used as the album cover for Uriah Heep‘s 2001 album ‘Remasters: The Official Anthology’.
A happy ending?
So there we have it, the story of how an ambitious software house was brought down, largely by their own ambitions.. ..only to then go on and spawn probably one of the best software houses ever seen the the UK.. ..that was until Sony Computer Entertainment got involved.. ..but that’s another story!
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