RETROSPECTIVE – Masquerade (Jonathan Cape, 1979)

Masquerade Book.pngMasquerade’ is an illustrated story book written by Kit Williams and published by Jonathan Cape in August 1979. It went on to become an international best seller with hundreds of thousands of copies being sold in the UK alone. The book sparked an ‘armchair’ treasure hunt craze, which survives to this day.

Somewhat ironically, the story of the book is far more interesting than the story contained within the book.. ..it brought the author/illustrator unwelcome fame and a little controversy at the time, contributing to him shying away from the public gaze for 20 years before being reunited with his ‘prize’.

Masquerade – the story of a story

It seems hard to believe that this story starts with Kit Williams and renowned TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne (a credible witness) secretly burying a bejewelled golden hare in the grounds of Ampthill Park in the middle of the night on the 7th August 1979. Although, the actual story, of course, starts somewhat earlier.

In the early 70’s Kit Williams had been challenged by his publisher, Tom Maschler, of the publishing firm Jonathan Cape, to “do something no one has ever done before” with a picture book. William’s accepted the challenge and wanted to create a picture book where the reader would be encouraged to study the pictures in detail instead of giving them a passing glance. To do this he decided that the book, and in particular the pictures, would provide the clues to the location of a buried treasure that he would also hand craft from gold.

As such ‘Masquerade’ features fifteen beautify detailed paintings which serve to illustrate the story of a hare named Jack Hare, who is asked to carry a treasure from the Moon (depicted as a woman) to her true love, the Sun (a man). On reaching the Sun, Jack finds that he has lost the treasure, and the reader is left to discover its location.

Kit Williams has been quoted as saying “If I was to spend two years on the 16 paintings for Masquerade I wanted them to mean something. I recalled how, as a child, I had come across ‘treasure hunts’ in which the puzzles were not exciting nor the treasure worth finding. So I decided to make a real treasure, of gold, bury it in the ground and paint real puzzles to lead people to it. The key was to be Catherine of Aragon‘s Cross at Ampthill, near Bedford, casting a shadow, like the pointer of a sundial.”


Personal reflection

My first introduction to ‘Masquerade’ was at my cousin’s house in the winter of ’81. They had a lot of books, very unlike the situation at my parents’ house, ‘Masquerade’ was one of their favourites. I was immediately enthralled with ‘Masquerade’ and my cousin and I were convinced (along with probably the rest of the UK) that we could work out where the treasure was buried.. ..suffice to say, we couldn’t!


The treasure hunt

The treasure in question was a marvellous 18 carat gold hare on a segmented chain, fashioned as a large filigree pendant, bestowed with jewels.. ..it was estimated (at the time) to be worth c. £2,500 and would eventually sell for more than ten-times that amount.

Williams encased the hare in wax, sealed inside a detailed ceramic hare-shaped casket (both to protect it from erosion and to foil metal detectors). The casket was inscribed with the legend “I am the Keeper of the Jewel of MASQUERADE, which lies waiting safe inside me for YOU or ETERNITY“.

Masquerade Jewel

The golden Hare

Soon after Williams buried the treasure, with Gascoigne as a witness, he publicly announced his forthcoming book. Revealing that it contained all clues necessary to locate the treasure’s precise hiding place in Britain to “within a few inches.” At the time, the only additional clue he provided was that the hare was buried on public property that could be easily accessed. To ensure that readers from further afield had an equal chance of winning, Williams also announced that he would confirm the first precisely correct answer sent to him by post.

For three years after the books publication Williams was inundated, on a daily basis, with post from treasure hunters who claimed to be close to finding the location.. ..nearly all were nowhere near finding the actual solution and hence location of the treasure.

Treasure hunters often dug ground on public and private property acting on hunches.. ..indeed ‘Haresfield Beacon‘, unsurprisingly,  became a popular site for searchers with Williams eventually paying for a of a sign to be erected notifying them that the hare was not hidden on the premises. Real-life locations reproduced in the paintings were also routinely searched by treasure hunters, including Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire.

The golden hare is found!

Two physics teachers, Mike Barker of William Hulme’s Grammar School and John Rousseau of Rossall School, correctly deciphered the clues within the book to discover the location of the golden hare in March 1982. However, they could not find it when digging at Ampthill and were subsequently disappointed to discover, upon contacting Williams, that another hunter had just sent in the location and successfully claimed the prize from underneath their noses.

Just a few weeks prior to Barker and Rousseau’s contact with Williams he had received a letter and location map from a ‘Ken Thomas’. Williams realised that although Thomas had not solved the puzzle as intended, seemingly blundering in with a lucky guess, he was indeed in the right location. As such, Williams immediately phoned him to tell him where to dig.. ..amazingly it is reputed that Thomas eventually found the clay casket containing the hare in one of the earth piles left by Barker and Rousseau, who had not recognised it as the prize!

It seems that Barker and Rousseau were the only people to ever correctly decipher the clues as Williams had intended.

Upon reflection, it may seem that Williams was a little too hasty to award the prize to Thomas, who had not correctly deciphered his clues.. ..however, by then the book had been out for more than two years, sold over a million copies world-wide, with very few even coming  close to solving the main puzzle. Williams was immensely relieved that someone was finally at least in the right location.. ..by this time both the press and public were becoming sceptical that there was indeed a prize! Indeed, William’s publisher even received a letter accusing him of fabricating the artist, arguing that ‘Kit Williams’ was simply an anagram of ‘I Will Mask It’!

The golden hare was eventually removed from its casket and wax for the first time since it’s burial by Kit Williams himself, at the behest and in the presence of Thomas.

The solution to the puzzle

Masquerade‘ presents an overly elaborate puzzle, it’s no wonder the majority were either way off course or had no idea whatsoever what was going on (including me)! As a result of the puzzle being so complex, Williams made his next treasure hunt book (‘The Bee on the Comb’, 1984) much easier to solve.

Of course, to fulfil Williams’s desire for people to examine his exquisite pictures in detail, several clues are hidden within the fifteen illustrations; the actual text in the book is largely irrelevant to the solving of the puzzles.  The main clue is revealed by correctly interpreting both the 4th “Miss Penny Pockets” and 12thIsaac Newton” paintings in the book. The colours in the magic square pinned to the wall in the 12th painting correspond to the numbers in the magic square on the 4th painting. This colour sequence also matches the rings on the puppets in painting 12.. ..like strings connecting to a puppet, if you draw a line in each painting, running from each creatures (including humans and any ‘hidden’ animals) left eye, through the longest digit on its left hand it will point to one of the letters on the border legend (as per the clue on the book’s title page, about using your eyes and pointing to the prize). This is then repeated, from the left eye through the longest digit on the left foot; the right eye through the longest digit on the right hand; and finally the right eye through the longest digit on the right foot (this is only done for eyes and digits that are visible in the painting). The letters in the frames of the pictures that these lines point to can be made to form words; either by treating them as anagrams or by correctly applying the sequence of animals and digits described in the 12th painting.

Following this method reveals fifteen short phrases, which when collated form the following nineteen-word message/instruction:

CATHERINE’S LONG FINGER OVER SHADOWS EARTH BURIED YELLOW AMULET MIDDAY POINTS THE HOUR ILIGHT OF EQUINOX LOOK YOU”

Mascerade Monument

The Catherine of Aragon monument

The acrostic of these words and phrases then reads “CLOSEBYAMPTHILL“. Properly interpreted, this tells the reader that the treasure is buried near the cross-shaped monument to Catherine of Aragon in Ampthill Park. The precise spot to dig is revealed by the tip of the monument’s shadow (literally a cross marking the location) at noon on the day of either the Spring/vernal or Autumnal equinox.


Personal reflection

The irony of this for me personally is that I first read Masquerade at my cousins house and we imagined the golden hare buried somewhere remote; a vast distance from where we were sitting. They lived in Luton.. ..the elusive treasure we sought was a mere 14 miles away!


Many additional hints, or ‘confimers‘ using Williams own prose, are scattered throughout the book. For example, in painting 2 “The Sun and the Moon dance“, the hands of the two figures are clasped together, crossing and pointing at the date of the spring equinox; this is ‘balanced’ at the bottom of the picture with the scales pointing to the date of the alternative autumnal equinox. In painting 3 “The day begins” the rather obvious Hare is standing on a stone which resembles a frog.. ..in Ampthill park there is a weathered stone know as the ‘Frogstone’. There is a picture of a football field in painting 5 “Tara Tree Tops” indicting the location is  near a football field and the clock in painting 10 “Jack in the green” is very similar to the one in Ampthill itself (unfortunately, this latter clue is slightly obscured by the centrefold of the book itself). Surprisingly for such a complicated puzzle book, the 1st painting “One of six to eight” and the associated text instantly presents one of the biggest clues within the entire book, hinting at a link to Catherine of Aragon. This page also states, “In the earth am I”, confirming that the treasure is indeed buried in the ground somewhere, and not inside a building, vehicle, or other man-made structure.

Clues in the book are presented at various levels of obscurity, for example one of the more unnoticed clues is one that confirms the critical link between paintings 4 and 12.. ..this is indicated by the so-called ‘hare bell’.. ..it is mentioned a few times in the story, and appears a few times in the paintings… but there are only two story/painting combinations where it is both mentioned and pictured – namely, paintings 4 and 12!

However, there are also many red herrings. For example, painting 13 “Jack meets the fish” is of a rather obvious red fish which reveals the word ‘IN’, not essential to the solving of the riddle. In addition, painting 5 “Tara Tree Tops” whilst revealing the football field clue also contains a red herring number square within it; the numbers in the football field are atomic numbers, and when translated into their elemental abbreviations, spell out “FALSE NOUU THINK AGAIN“.

Some letters in the borders of the paintings also have small barbs on them or are coloured red; they’re quite easy to spot. By rearranging these letters you can form secret words.. ..they are not related to the main riddle but they do refer to the paintings they surround, so they’re simple self-contained puzzles. Finally, a hare is also ‘hidden’ in each of the paintings for the reader to spot.

As the main puzzle was so difficult to solve, Kit Williams printed a completely separate illustrated clue (including the familiar hidden hare, a ‘red herring’ and a self-contained secret ‘Merry Christmas’ message) in the Sunday Times on December 21st 1980.. ..which largely seemed to confuse everyone even more!

The controversial and mysterious winner

The announcement of the winner was strange from the start as ‘Ken Thomas’ proved to be a very secretive individual. He did not want any publicity surrounding him and was very reluctant to appear on photos or give interviews, indeed he often hid his face from view and only agreed to an interview on an a related BBC Omnibus programme (in 1982) by being allowed to sit obscured behind a reeded glass window.. ..there seemed to be more to his secrecy that just wanting to simply stay out of the lime-light.

On December 11th 1988The Sunday Times accused ‘Ken Thomas’ of fraud. Firstly, his name was revealed to be a pseudonym of Dugald Thompson. They then went on to state that Thompson’s business partner, John Guard, had been the boyfriend of Veronica Robertson, a former live-in girlfriend of Kit Williams. Guard had allegedly convinced Robertson to help them find the buried jewel because both were said to be animal rights activists and Guard promised to donate any profits to the animal rights cause.

The Sunday Times alleged that while living with Williams, Robertson had learned of the approximate location of the hare, while remaining ignorant of the proper solution to the book’s master riddle. After supposedly finding out from Robertson that the hare was in Ampthill, Guard and two assistants were said to have started searching for it using metal detectors. After searching for some time with no success, they drew a crude sketch of the location, which Thompson then submitted to Williams as ‘Thomas’, and it was this that Williams acknowledged as the first correct answer.

Williams, understandably, was shocked to discover the scandal and is quoted as saying: “This tarnishes ‘Masquerade’ and I’m shocked by what has emerged. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to all those many people who were genuinely looking for it. Although I didn’t know it, it was a skeleton in my cupboard and I’m relieved it has come out.”

Dugald Thompson has rarely spoken about these allegations, but did surface in 2009 to tell the BBC that the Sunday Times account of things was wrong; but was unable to reveal how he actually found the jewel for “legal reasons“.

Robertson has always maintained her innocence in the finding of the original treasure, insisting that she never knew the location of the jewel or even which part of the world it had been buried.


Insight – a continued deception?

However, the apparent deception by Thompson and Guard may not have simply stopped with the claim on the jewel.. ..shortly after ‘locating’ the golden hare they founded a software company called “Haresoft” (which had at least two different PO Box addresses, see the cassette inlay images below). The company offered £30k or the actual golden hare as a prize for a new contest which took the form of a two computer games, under the ‘HARERAISER‘ moniker; ‘Prelude‘ and ‘Finale‘. The games, heavily advertised and released on nearly every single 8-bit platform of the time, were very simple (each being only c. 8 kilobytes in size) but cost an eye-watering £8.95 each.. ..rather suspiciously you were forced to purchase both to complete the puzzle.

Indeed the winner would have been required to send both of their game cassettes back to Haresoft (to which of the two PO Box’s being somewhat unclear) as proof of purchase !

Hareraiser Prelude

‘HARERAISER (Prelude)’ inlay for the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum

It seems highly unlikely, based on the dubious nature of Thompson and Guard, that a solution actually exists for the games. Even when examining the underlying code, both seem to be little more than a collection of meaningless text and simplistic graphics intended to relinquish hopeful treasure-hunters of their hard-earned cash.. ..but surely, if this was a scam, it was too obvious, too easy to prove?

Well not really.. ..if pressed, it would have been fairly simple for Haresoft to concoct a spurious solution to the competition to prevent any further investigation or accusations of a ruse.

Hareraiser Finale

‘HARERAISER (Finale)’ inlay for the 48k Sinclair ZX Spectrum

Fortunately, the public were indeed sceptical and the company and its games, were unsuccessful; ‘Haresoft’ going into liquidation shortly after launching ‘Finale‘ – which due to very poor sales is now, ironically, quite rare and collectable.

Unsurprisingly, no winner of the ‘HARERAISER’ competition was ever announced.. ..even although, Thompson and Guard reputed that TV star Anneka Rice (of ‘Treasure Hunt‘ fame) had spontaneously given a clue to complete the game at an unrecorded and undisclosed time in Hamley’s of London?!?

So, did the games present a genuine solvable puzzle and a chance to win £30k or was this a complete scam? I’ll let you decide that one for yourself!


What happened to the golden hare?

The golden hare was later auctioned at Sotheby’s in December 1988, selling for £31,900 to an anonymous buyer. Williams himself went there to bid, but dropped out at £6,000. It was put up for sale to compensate for the losses incurred by the collapse of “Haresoft”.

The treasure’s whereabouts then remained unknown for over 20 years, until it again came to light in 2009.

The BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘The Grand Masquerade’, broadcast 14th July 2009, told the story of the creation and solution of the puzzle. Williams was interviewed and presenter John O’Farrell claimed that this was the first time Williams had talked about the scandal for 20 years. During the interview Williams expressed the desire to see the hare again. Hearing this, the granddaughter of the current owner arranged for Williams to be reunited briefly with his work, which was featured in a television documentary, ‘The Man Behind the Masquerade’, which aired on BBC Four on 2nd December 2009.

More recently, the hare has been displayed at the V&A Museum, London, as part of its “British Design 1948–2012” retrospective in 2012.


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RETROSPECTIVE – Dark Seed II (Cyberdreams, 1995)

Dark Seed II’ is a 1995 psychological horror game and sequel to the point-and-click adventure game ‘Dark Seed’, which was itself released in 1992. It continues the story of the protagonist ‘Mike Dawson’ and his adventures in the H.R. Giger inspired ‘Dark World’.

Unlike the original game the main character is not portrayed by the real ‘Mike Dawson’ (the designer and producer of the original game), who had by this time left Cyberdreams.. ..instead being portrayed by an actor named Chris Gilbert.

‘Dark Seed II’ was written by the novelist Raymond Benson, who would later go on to write James Bond stories.

‘Dark Seed II’ was released for Microsoft Windows 3.1x, Apple Macintosh (both in a similar box to the original game) the SEGA Saturn and the Sony PlayStation.. ..although the latter two, as with the original game, were only released in Japan. Again, it is largely based around the fantastic biomechanical artwork of H. R. Giger.

Synopsis (contains spoilers)

darkseed2-1

Mike Dawson returns – Windows 3.1x version

Mike Dawson is now living at home in Crowley, Texas with his mother, after selling up his Victorian house in Woodland Hills. Although he is trying to put his horrific encounters with the Ancients behind him he is still plagued by nightmares and is recovering from a mental breakdown brought on by his previous adventure.

Mike grew up in Crowley and he hopes that being in his home town with his mother will give him some much needed solace.

A year has passed since the first game, but Mike is still very much haunted by his recent past. Worse still is the fact that his former girlfriend, Rita, has recently been found murdered shortly after they rekindled their relationship at a High School reunion. Poor old Mike is firmly in the frame for the murder and everybody in Crowley suspects he did it, with the exception of his old friend Jack.

darkseed2-8

Windows 3.1x version

Again, it quickly becomes evident (from watching the TV!) that the Ancients are somehow behind Rita’s murder and Mike must again cross between the alternative realities to find what is happening and to clear his name.. ..maybe also to escape the Ancients, once and for all!

Unfortunately, the Ancients have no intention of leaving Mike alone and are again intent on using him for their plans to take over the world.

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The SVGA resolution finally does the Giger artwork justice – Windows 3.1x version

It is not long before Mike dies in the game (which can be for a number of reasons/actions) and as a consequence, once again, he encounters the strangely beautiful ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ in the ‘Dark World’. She informs him that he is destined to die, but on this occasion she will be able to return Mike to the real world. However, if Mike dies a second time he will return to her to be plunged into a river of blood for eternity.

The ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ also informs Mike that the Ancients have created a monster which she referees to as the ‘Behemoth’ and that it has sucked the ‘life force’ from the Earth (this scenario can also happen near to the ending of the game if Mike fails to race through the ‘Maze of Mirrors’ – located in a carnival that has come to town – before the Behemoth, as it will then cross into the real world and become immortal).

darkseed2-2

Windows 3.1x version

Once Mike has talked to several people in different locations around Crowley, including repeated conversations with his friend Jack, he enters the Dark World, once again. As before Mike needs to make the crossing several times in order to collect various items and solve puzzles. However, on one occasion he does not realise he is still in the Dark World, as this time it looks exactly like his mother’s house. Indeed, during this section Mike thinks he is taking to his mother (as usual, busy cooking) until, shockingly, her head explodes!

darkseed2-3

Windows 3.1x version

Mike then sees a vision of Rita shrouded in the vapours of his dead moms cooking. Rita explains that the Behemoth can be killed using a special sword, which is held by another Ancient called the ‘Keeper of the Sword’.

After Mike obtains the sword the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ advises him to take a short-cut through the ‘Maze of Mirrors’ and he should then be able to meet and kill the Behemoth.

Mike does so and then proceeds destroys the Ancient’s spaceship (again!), being congratulated by the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’.. ..or at least, seemingly the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’.

He wakes up in his psychiatrist’s office and finds Jack there next to the body of the obviously recently murdered psychiatrist. Mike accuses Jack of being the killer, who laughs and informs Mike that he is actually the murder.. ..as he and Mike are in reality the very same person! Mike now realising that Jack is his ‘Dark World’ counterpart (as seen in the opening titles) attacks Jack but is overpowered and killed by Jack using the same knife that he just killed the psychiatrist with.

darkseed2-6

Windows 3.1x version

Sheriff Butler and his deputy then arrive on the scene, apparently totally oblivious to Jack’s presence, concluding that Mike is indeed the murder of Rita and the psychiatrist, as well as the Mayor and others that have been killed throughout the duration of the game. They conclude that Mike was a deranged serial killer who then committed suicide.

Jack is finally seen leaving the Dark World on his bike, leaving it ambiguous as to whether Mike really was a serial killer, or if the entire saga was a delusion and part of Mike’s ongoing mental condition.

darkseed2-7

Windows 3.1x version

Is it any good?

Not really.. ..which is a real shame. The artwork is still fantastic and benefits from being at a higher SVGA resolution and colour pallet than the original, but ‘Dark Seed II’ falls short of the original, for a number of reasons.

But, let’s start with some positives as there are some improvements.. ..the interface has been refined and the graphics have again been done very well (using similar techniques to the used for first game), in many cases looking much better than the original (particularly the ‘real world’ scenes).. ..it is certainly the more colourful of the two. The music is also largely better, bringing an appropriate level of atmosphere without being intrusive. We also have a proper map this time, which is a very welcome addition.

I also quite like the ending.. ..whilst predictable from about half-way through, it is still enjoyable and more satisfying (in some ways) than the rather abrupt ending of the original game.

However, the major downfall in ‘Dark Seed II’ is with the weak character development.. ..I didn’t connect with this Mike as much as I did the original; in that game I was really rooting for him.. ..in this one I was not particularly surprised that he could be a murdering psycho.. ..I also didn’t really care!

None of this is helped by the voice acting, which is largely awful.. ..conversations are over verbose, poorly scripted and often of little point to the games plot. Unfortunately, you need to go through them as they are trigger points for continuation. There are many of these triggers and you also have to do a lot of back tracking in ‘Dark Seed II’, more so even than the original game.

Also, like the original game, there is still too much ‘pixel hunting’ (for example, it took me ages to find the ‘buzzer’ in the morgue) and most of these puzzles are laboured and simply not fun. The ‘Maze of Mirrors’ puzzle is particularly frustrating, requires a keen eye and is a point where many players have admitted to giving up on the game.

darkseed2-5

The infuriating ‘Maze of Mirrors’ – Windows 3.1x version

The ‘Behemoth’ is also a disappointing.. ..it is great that you actually ‘fight’ a boss monster this time around, but I found its design to be very weak, mainly as it has no relationship to the rest of the H. R. Giger artwork and is poorly envisioned.

Do I recommend you play it? Not really.. ..whilst it strives to improve on the original, ‘Dark Seed II’ is too marred by its many gameplay problems to recommend; they unfortunately serve to overshadow the improvements made to this sequel.

However, if you liked the original game or admire H. R. Giger’s artwork, you may find it interesting. If you do decide to play ‘Dark Seed II’ have a walk-through handy.. ..the game can frustratingly difficult without one.


Insight – development of the game

By the time ‘Dark Seed II’ was produced much of the original team at Cyberdreams had left and by the time of its release in 1995 the company was already starting to face financial problems.

David Mullich produced and oversaw the development of the game, while Raymond Benson wrote the script, dialog and puzzles. Benson was heavily influence by David Lynch’s work, particularly as he was (with several million others) engrossed at the time with ‘Twin Peaks’.. ..indeed it was Lynch’s influence which was responsible for the games ambiguous ending.

Benson had previously worked at MicroProse where he had recently been laid off along with c. third of the other staff. He was approached by Mullich to work on ‘Dark Seed II’. He accept and worked on the script and puzzles over a three month period from his house. According to Benson the team already had access to Giger’s artwork and so the artist was not directly involved in the production of this sequel.


Console ports

The game was ported and released at around the same time as the Windows 3.1x release for the SEGA Saturn, Sony PlayStation and the Apple Macintosh. The Mac versions is graphically very similar to its PC brethren, but the console versions run at a slightly reduced resolution.

The game was published by Bandi Visual and B-Factory on the Saturn and the PlayStation. Unlike the original game the Saturn version no longer supported the Saturn mouse.


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RETROSPECTIVE – Dark Seed (Cyberdreams, 1992)

For my first article of the New Year I wanted to do a retrospective about something that combines my two favourite genres – horror and video gaming.

So today we will be taking a fairly in depth look at a both divisive and largely forgotten video game.. ..‘Dark Seed’ was a psychological horror point-and-click adventure game developed and published by Cyberdreams in 1992. It was one of the first adventure games to use high resolution graphics and was largely based on the artwork of H. R. Giger.


Insight – who is H.R. Giger?

Hans Rudolf “Ruedi” Giger was a Swiss surrealist painter whose work was adapted for many media types including record-albums, furniture and tattoo-art. He is known to most people as the creator of the titular ‘Alien’ from the 1979 classic film of the same name. He was born on the 5th February 1940 and died from a fall in 2014.

Zurich-based, Giger was best-known for his airbrushed illustrations of humans and machines fused together in cold, sometimes sexual, ‘biomechanical’ relationships. His work on ‘Alien’ won an Academy Award and his work is now on permanent display at the H.R. Giger Museum at Gruyères. He was widely recognised as somewhat of an artistic genius.


Synopsis (contains spoilers)

The ‘Dark Seed’ story revolves around a successful advertising executive and writer called Mike Dawson. Mike is the Chairman of the Board for a thriving, San Francisco based, advertising company. However, Mike’s ambition is to become a writer and he searches for a tranquil haven where he can pursue a new career as a novelist. As such, he buys a fully-furnished Victorian manor on Ventura Drive (named after Ventura Boulevard) in the small town of Woodland Hills. During the game we control his adventures over a three day period. Incidentally, Mike is named after the game’s designer and producer who also lent his appearance to his character’s in game sprite.

Dark Seed Embryo Implantation

The implantation of the ‘Dark Seed’, Commodore-Amiga version

During the first night in his new house, Mike has a nightmare about being imprisoned by a machine that surgically implants an alien embryo into his brain – the eponymous ‘Dark Seed’ (a scene inspired by Giger’s 1967 ‘The Birth Machine’). Mike wakes up with a severe headache and, after taking some aspirins and a shower, explores his new abode. At first, Mike rationalises these dreams he’s having as nothing more than deluded fantasies, but when he starts having visions while still wide awake, of china dolls turning into deformed fetuses or his own reflection changing to a translucent fanged monster (based on Giger’s 1985 Poltergeist II), he gradually accepts the terrifying reality that something is horribly wrong in Woodland Hills. As he explores his house and the town he discovers parts of a journal left by the house’s previous owner.. ..they also seem to have suffered from the same symptoms as Mike. You quickly learn that there is another parallel world, just outside the border of our own, where an alien race of deformed and perverse alien creatures known as the Ancients are waiting to invade Earth and annihilate all of humanity. It is the ancients that have implanted an embryo inside Mike’s head.

Dark Seed 04

The embryo implantation plans, PC version

Dark Seed 02

‘What the ?’ – PC verion

On the second day, he travels to the alternate ‘Dark World’ through a large ornate mirror in his living room, which acts a portal. The Dark World is full of manifestations based on Giger’s work (mainly taken from his Necronomicon works) representing malevolent aliens. However, Mike soon meets a friendlier alien called the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ (based on Giger’s Li II, 1974; also featured on the games beautiful box artwork). She tells him that the nightmare he had on his first night was indeed real and warns him that if the embryo is born, it will not only kill him but will also destroy all of humanity. She also reveals that it is in Mike’s power to stop all of this; as long as he can disable the Ancient’s power source. As the town and Mike’s house are all mirrored in the Dark World, you begin to understand that things you do in the one can affect the other.. ..this helps you to locate essential items and complete the various tasks.

Dark Seed 03

Mike crosses over into the Dark World, PC version

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The Dark World, PC version

Dark Seed 07

The ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’, PC version

On the third and final day, Mike executes a typically (over) elaborate plan that culminates with the Ancient ship’s departure from the Dark World (which was shown landing during the title sequence), depriving them of their power source. Mike then destroys the living room mirror, closing the portal and sealing the Ancients out of our world. The town librarian (a potential love interest) then visits Mike and tells him she found some pills in her purse prescribed for him. The medication will presumably kill the embryo inside his head. A morphing animation reveals that, unbeknown to the librarian, she is the ‘Keeper of the Scrolls’ real world counterpart. Mike then states that he’s just beginning to understand and the game ends.

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A pivotal location (hint – pillows are good for hiding things under)! – PC version

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On board the alien spaceship – PC version

Dark Seed 09

Mike smashes the connection between worlds – PC version


Is it any good?

‘Dark Seed’ is strange game and a difficult one to review.. ..in many ways it was both ‘a breath of fresh air’ and an astonishing achievement (for the time) – the level of graphical detail, the artwork overall and the narrative.. ..were all simply outstanding. However, the game play was where things weren’t quite so polished.

Unlike most point-and-click adventure games, which give you ample (usually unlimited) time to explore, many actions in ‘Dark Seed’ must occur within precise time limits. If they were not completed within this timely ‘dictat’ the game will end up in an unwinnable state.. ..frustratingly this is usually unknown to you the player. As a result, you must eventually start over, when you realise nothing is happening to progress your game.

In addition, the interface, whilst quite clever for the time, required you to occasionally have the cursor precisely located in order to find a clue or item.. ..sometimes these locations are only a few pixels square in size, so it can turn into a little bit of an uninteresting and frustrating hunt and ‘click-fest’. Admittedly, most things are easy to find and there is some logic to their location, but others are bewilderingly obtuse. As such, the actual game play has not aged at all well.

For some of these reasons, reviews at the time of the games release, whilst favourable, were also critical. For example, Computer Gaming World stated that the game was “the most integrated and effective feel for a horror adventure yet” but criticized the unforgiving real-time game play that often caused un-winnable situations, hard-to-find on-screen puzzle elements, and an overly abrupt ending, stating that “the interactive elements are so poorly implemented that they nearly destroy the effect” of the graphics and sound.

However, in 1993, the game received a Codie Award from the Software Publishing Association for Best Fantasy Role-Playing/Adventure.

Personally, I love ‘Dark Seed‘ and recommend you give it a try.. ..but you have to be patient and mindful of when it was made; having a ‘walk-through’ handy is almost obligatory.


Insight – development of the game

The development of the game is an interesting story in its own right. For the time, Cyberdreams were very ambitious creating a game which showcased the artwork of Giger, maybe overly so. However, the game does to a large extent get across the wonderful macabre nature of the artist’s work.. ..it crawls into your psyche from the very opening scene.. ..the game has always stayed with me over the years and I still think it looks pretty good today!

It is hard not to be moved by Giger’s work, it is both beautiful and abhorrent at the same time and Cyberdreams captured it well.. ..amazingly so when you consider the limitations of the hardware at the time. Today a game like ‘Dark Seed’ would be easy to make, even considered ‘lazy’ programming, but this is certainly nothing that Cyberdreams could have been accused of in 1992.. ..creating ‘Dark Seed’ must have been a bit of a labour of love.

The idea to ask Giger to supply his artwork was as much as a stroke of genius for Cyberdreams as it was for Ridely Scott to approach him to create the ‘Alien’.. ..who better to supply the imagery for the nightmare that you, as Mike Dawson, would encounter.

Patrick Ketchum, was the president of Cyberdreams and he approached Giger to supply artwork for the game c. 1990. From an article in the November 1992 Compute! magazine, it seems that initially Giger was (unsurprisingly) not at all impressed with the blocky nature of the then widely adopted VGA graphics.. ..but as a computing neophyte he realised what could be achieved at higher resolutions and wanted his artwork represented by as many pixels as possible.

To this end the Cyberdreams team increased the resolution of the game to 640 x 350, which also reduced the number of available on screen colours from 256 to 16 (due to hardware limitations). This worked well with Giger’s artwork and the artist was impressed.. ..so much so that he granted them almost full access to his artwork and granted permission for use in a follow up game (more on that in later article).

The task of getting the artwork into the game was no mean feat. The Cyberdreams team scanned hundreds of images from Giger’s portfolio with an Epson ES-300C flatbed scanner and then manipulated the images in DeluxePaint IIe on a PC. As the team was free to choose from virtually all of Giger’s artwork they were able to piece together some distinct and menacing locations and characters. ‘Dark Seed’ has fantastic landscapes (at least in the ‘Dark World’) and the animation, whilst limited by contemporary standards’ does largely succeed in bringing this strange world to life.

The animation was accomplished using a CommodoreAmiga, Newtek’s Digiview and a S-VHS recorder to digitise the real Mike Dawson. These images were converted to 16 colour grey scale and edited in the Amiga’s renowned version of Deluxe Paint. They were then saved as IFF files and transferred to a PC using CrossDOS for further editing. The Amiga was also used for the processing the sound samples and for the morphing effects seen the game.

The Cyberdreams team then spent what must have been a painstaking six months re-colouring all of the graphics by hand.. ..the initial scans being a little too ‘flat’ to use in the game, due to the reduced colour palette.

To conserve memory and reduce disk access your actions within the game are shown in a 500 x 200 pixel window within the main 640 x 350 screen. Now this might sound like bit of a marketing cheat, but it works well.. ..placing some welcome distance between you and the macabre Dark World. The decorative boarder also adds a wonderful sense of claustrophobia.. ..the draped curtains, the third eye of the Illuminati watching your every move.. ..it feels like you are watching a surreal stage play and sets the scene well.


Release and ports to consoles

‘Dark Seed’ was originally released for MS-DOS on the PC, then shortly after on the Commodore-Amiga. These versions came in a beautifully designed box with the Li II/Keeper of the Scrolls on another box embedded in the front. Although the sound is arguably better on the Amiga, it looks and plays better on the PC as the graphical resolution was slightly reduced for the former.

Dark Seed PC

The PC MS-DOS version

Dark Seed Amiga

The Commodore-Amiga version

The game was later ported to the Commdore Amiga CD32Apple MacintoshSEGA Saturn and Sony PlayStation.

Dark Seed Saturn

The SEGA Saturn version

The PlayStation and Saturn versions were only released in Japan by ‘Gaga’; however, the Saturn version is not dubbed in Japanese, only subtitled, making the game’s story accessible to English speakers. These two ports are not great – they double the speed that time flows in the game, as well as speeding up the soundtrack.. ..the graphics, which are identical, irrespective of hardware, are at a fractionally lower resolution than the PC versions.. ..both smack of a rushed port and release cycle.

The Amiga CD32 port is essentially the same as the Amiga version but adds speech and the Mac version is very similar to its PC counterpart.

There was also a version developed for the SEGA Mega-CD and even promoted for an American release, but publisher Vic Tokai never released it.

A very scaled down and unlicensed Nintendo NES port entitled ‘黑暗之蛊 ‘ was developed by ‘Mars Production’ and released by ‘Union Bond’ in China.

Dark Seed NES

The unlicensed NES version – ‘Real World’

darkseed-nes-2

The unlicensed NES version – ‘Dark World’

The NES version does not end correctly, getting stuck in a loop, repeating the librarian’s end text, infinitely. The sound is also very poor, with a single 15 second original track that repeats constantly throughout the game. Finally, Dilbert’s dog is absent from this version and therefore so is ‘Fido’ from the Dark World.

Giger, I am sure, would have been horrified if he had seen this version as the graphics (which are actually not terrible for a NES game) are totally unrecognisable from his original artwork due to the severe limitations of the hardware.


What happened to Mike Dawson and Cyberdreams?

Interestingly, there was  a long standing urban myth that the real Mike Dawson, who worked at Cyberdreams and gave his likeness and name to the main protagonist, went insane due to the intense pressure of designing the game.. ..the actual truth is a little less dramatic. Mike left Cyberdreams following the game’s release in order to write for television, which he did until the late 1990’s. He has since moved into teaching, and has developed and taught courses for UCLA and The Digital Media Academy at Stanford University, details of which can be found on his website.

CyberDreams continued until early 1997, releasing titles like the acclaimed ‘I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and ‘Darkseed II, which again featured the protagonist Mike Dawson, though his namesake had little to do with this game. Patrick Ketchum, who had previously founded Datasoft, founded Cyberdreams in 1990. In 1995 an “internal shake-up” took place by which the investors removed management and installed a “turnaround management team” aimed to transition it to 3rd party publishing. At this point Ketchum left the company and started a career as photographer.. ..the company was defunct less than two years later.


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RETROSPECTIVE – Imagine Software (1982-84)

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 Software was founded in 1982 by former members of Bug-byte including Mark Butler, David Lawson and Eugene Evans.

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.

Mega Games Advert Mega Games Advert 2 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.

After Imagine went under in 1984, the name was purchased by Ocean Software, who changed it to ‘Imagine Studios’ and had success focusing on arcade conversions until 1989.

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.

Psygnosis Psyclapse Logo

The famous Psygnosis ‘Owl’ logo, although some early games were released under the Psyclapse logo as well

Brataccas’ was Psygnosis’s first release. It is a science fiction action-adveture video game and was finally released in 1986 for the AmigaAtari ST, and Macintosh.

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 asteroidBrataccas’. 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.

Brataccas Game Play 1

Brataccas game play, Kyne is in red and being attacked!

Brataccas Game Play 2

Is this a Sinclair QL game?

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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RETROSPECTIVE – the Microdrive (Sinclair Research, 1983)

Sinclair logo

As was usual for a Sinclair release there was great initial fanfare about their ‘revolutionary’ new storage media. Clive Sinclair claimed, upon release of the ZX Spectrum (23rd April, 1982) that their new ‘drives’ would ‘change the face of personal computing’ and ‘be cheaper than floppy disc drives’ (including the then emerging 3.5 inch format from Sony). Even the early ZX Spectrum adverts (1,2) mentioned the drives as ‘coming soon’. However, it was to be over a year and half before the drives eventually came to market; in what would prove to be the start of the end for Sinclair Research.. ..Microdrives became a byword for delay and disappointment.

In this retrospective were going to take an in depth look at Sinclair’s typically, atypical take on mass storage.. ..the controversial Microdrive.

ZX Microdrive

The ZX Microdrive

The start

The start was good. Initially, even the press were impressed, ‘Perhaps the biggest rabbit that Clive pulled out of his magician’s hat was the ZX Microdrive’, reported Popular Computing Weekly in their May issue. Sinclair lorded ‘This is a very tiny disk drive using two quarter-inch diskettes, with each diskette capable of holding 100KB, and a transfer rate of 16KB per second. You will be able to connect up to eight of these drives to the ZX Spectrum.. ..the price – £50’. This was, at the time, an amazing announcement.. ..Commodore’s single-disk 5.25 inch drive (a recently emerged industry standard format) for the VIC 20, which launched around the same time, was priced 8x higher! Even when Sony aggressively launched their new 3.5-inch discs and drives (November 1982 in the UK) they still cost £235. One of these newer storage formats went on to dominate and become a long standing industry standard, improved upon over time with higher storage capacities and faster read/write speeds.. ..the others did not!

Microdrive Cartridge

A Microdrive cartridge

To be fair, even in 1982 Sinclair acknowledged that the competing formats could store more data and were faster, but insisted that it was on the price point that the Microdrive would win.. ..’who needs such huge storage capacity anyway?’, Sinclair quipped. As 1982 ended, the adverts mentioning the Microdrive began to change.. ..initially the  word ‘microfloppy’ was quietly dropped. Then the 1982 release date changed to ‘early 1983’. As the New Year progressed, there was still no sign of the ‘wonder media’. Also rumours began to spread that the Microdrive wasn’t actually based on disk technology at all, but was tape based. It was the start of something that Sinclair would became infamous for.. ..promising way too much, way too early (in fact, they already had a bit of a reputation for this, as those who had ordered their famous ‘Black Watch’ already knew). Even the Advertising Standards Authority began to complain; they would later have a ‘field day’ with the disastrous launch of the Sinclair QL.

Initially, in July 1983 the drives started to ship, along with the ZX Interface 1 (3,4) required to link them to the ZX Spectrum. Sinclair also confirmed that each 43 x 30 x 5 mm Microdrive ‘cartridge’ contained not a disk but an infinite loop of tape – 2mm wide and claimed to be made of high-quality videotape, ‘not what you’d find in an ordinary audio cassette’. Apparently, Sinclair’s Microdrives were always intended to be based on tape technology.

During the Summer of 1974 a young engineer called Andrew Grillet, was interviewed for a job with Sinclair Research. According to Grillet, he was told that Sinclair was ‘going to build a computer’ and asked what ideas he might bring to the project. He proposed a data-storage system based on eight-track music cartridges, which were a popular precursor to the Compact Cassette. Thirty years later he was asked by The Register about his job interview at Sinclair Research.. ..he could not recall who he was interviewed by.. ..but he remembers they were impressed enough to offer him the job.. ..‘but Xerox offered me twice as much money, so I went to work for them’. In his 1985 book, The Sinclair Story, Rodney Dale, a one-time Sinclair Research employee, claims Sinclair product head, Jim Westwood and Chief Engineer, David Southward, jointly conceived the Microdrive in 1982. This would have been eight years after Grillet’s interview. Were these two men his interviewers? Had his idea remained hidden in the back of one or the other’s mind?

Sinclair were not the only company to recognise the value of looped tape storage. In 1979, California-based Exatron began pitching what it called the “Stringy Floppy” (5), a $250 device which took its own endless-tape cartridges, which Exatron called “Wafers”. Each wafer could hold 70KB of data on a loop of 1/60-inch tape. Both the Microdrive and the Stringy Floppy weren’t random access systems at all.. ..by moving the tape sufficiently quickly it was possible to make it appear to offer a kind of ‘pseudo random access’. At best the file you were seeking was just ahead of the read head’s position, at worst the device would have to spool right through the tape to reach the requested item.

Microdrive Cartridge Open

The inside of a Microdrive compared to a Compact Cassette

The problems

Like a lot of Sinclair releases there was a rush to production – initial Microdrives were actually released containing EPROMs, as there were still minor bugs in the control code. It quickly emerged that there were other problems too.. ..the drives were slow and repeated use could cause the very thin tape to stretch and fail.

Microdrive Care GuideEventually, the bugs were resolved, EPROMs became a thing of the past and the small addition of a 22 µF capacitor allowed the motor to more slowly come up to speed, causing less stress on the tape. Even so, users were advised by Sinclair to take care of their Microdrive cartridges and make back-ups.

Despite all of this, the initial reviews were generally positive, as at £49.95 the drives were considered reasonable. However, replacement cartridges, which cost £4.95 each, were not (they did later come down to a more sensible £1.99). Storage capacity though, initially stated at 100KB, had by launch become “no less than 85KB”. There were usage limitations as well.. ..each cartridge could only hold a maximum of 50 files, and data had to be read into memory, changed, the original erased and the new version written back to the tape. There was no way to modify the files directly, a consequence of the drive’s lack of true random access.

ZX Interface 1

The ZX Microdrive was connected via the ZX Interface 1

In addition, the Microdrive soon had competition, US company Astec introduced what it called the ‘Wafadrive’ (6) in the summer of 1984 – the product was sold in the UK by Rotronics – comprising of a dual-drive device which took 16KB, 64KB or 128KB tape cartridges (the drive mechanisms were made at the BSR factory in Stourbridge, which coincidentally my mum used to work at in the early 70’s). The drives were more expensive than Sinclair’s offering – £130 for the Spectrum version, or £160 for a unit that connected to the Commodore 64 – but the tapes were cheaper; just £3.95 for the highest capacity. The drives also had Centronics and RS232 ports on the back, similar to the ZX Inteface 1. Again, each cartridge contained a 5 M loop of tape to simulate random access. Sinclair User found the system to be rather more resilient than the Microdrive – mostly thanks to the larger, more robust tape cartridges – but slower. However Steve Gledhill, who runs a retro computer repair company, has found that over the subsequent 30 years Microdrive cartridges have tended to out-last Rotronics ‘wafers’. Neither of these formats found long-term success.

Rotronics Wafadrive

A Rotronics Wafadrive

For most users, it was simply due to the cost of the media.. ..microdrives were too expensive compared to using ordinary Compact Cassettes. In addition, very few software companies wanted to release via Microdrives (or indeed ‘wafers’) as: (i) the market was limited, (ii) mass duplication was difficult, (iii) reliability was an issue and (iv) the elevated costs of the cartridges, which were initially only available from their sole manufacturer, Sinclair Research.

Wafadrive and Microdrive

Comparison of the Rotronics ‘wafer’ and Microdrive cartridge

In 1984, the Sinclair QL was launched amidst much ‘fanfare’ (7). It was equipped with twin Microdrives (and no cassette interface), which were modified versions of the ones used for the ZX Spectrum.

The QL Microdrives ran 25% faster – this made duplication even more difficult, increased tape wear and reduced reliability.

According to Rodney Dale, who was working at Sinclair at the time, “the shipment of QLs was painfully slow, as each Microdrive cartridge was tested on its host machine to make sure that it worked properly”.

Rick Dickinson, Sinclair’s famous industrial designer laments the situation well.. ..’the Sinclair way of doing things meant that rather than re-design the Microdrive internals for the new computer, the Spectrum drives’ were simply put into the QL case’.. ..‘Failures of the Microdrive were really down to pushing production tolerances and materials too far, so variability came in’.

QL Microdrive Units

Inside the QL Microdrive units

In June 1984, even Popular Computing Weekly added to the fray, by using Microdrives in the QL, Sinclair is taking a risk that the machine may never receive proper software support. Anyone who writes a brilliant program for the QL cannot simply trot off to the nearest duplication plant, run off a few thousand copies and start selling them because Sinclair keeps sole control of Microdrive manufacture and duplication to itself’. They were right, neither the QL or the ZX Spectrum ever saw the volumes of Microdive sales that were required to secure the format… ..but by this time Sinclair had other issues.

The end

By 1985 Sinclair had suspended the production of the QL, in an attempt to save money – the company reporting a £18.3 million loss for the year to 31 March 1985. When Amstrad acquired Sinclair Research the following year (for a paltry £5 million), it promptly dropped the QL and the Microdrive platform. Amstrad had already launched their own the 3-inch diskette format (manufactured by Matsushita/Hitachi) on their PCW8256 word processor. They wanted their ‘new’ ZX Spectrums and CPCs to use this new format.. ..so that was the end of the Microdrive. Amstrad’s diskette would soon also join the Microdrive, as Sony’s 3.5-inch format went on to dominate, being used on the new 16-bit machines like the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST as well as, of course, PC‘s and Mac‘s. Cassette storage passed into history too – although tape drives eventually found a niche in back-up systems, which didn’t require high access speed. The growing use and capacity of hard disks, combined with their falling prices would eventually limit even floppies to software installation and data exchange. Indeed, as we sit here in 2015 even optical formats are giving way to web based downloads, all being stored on the now ubiquitous hard disk or SSD.

A waste?

ZX Spectrum Expansion

The ZX Spectrum Expansion System

So was the Microdrive a complete waste of time?

Not all together.. ..it did for a short period offer Sinclair users a relatively cheap method of ‘mass storage’, particularly on the rare occasion when the company got its act together and created good value packs such as the ‘ZX Spectrum Expansion System’ (8).

However, it was the usual rush to market and over stretched promises which rather sealed its eventual fate, right from the very start. The design of the units was, as ever, beautiful.. ..they just needed to be a bit more practical and reliable. Many have berated Sinclair for the decisions he made and the fate of the company, but we should face facts.. ..the rising dominance of the PC and Microsoft was already well underway by the mid 80’s and was soon to ‘snowball’.. .. sitting here typing this on a modern PC, we all know where that story led.

Reference materials

(1) Early ZX Spectrum advert mentioning the ZX Microdrive; (2) Early ZX Spectrum brochure mentioning the ZX Microdrive; (3) ZX Microdrive and ZX Interface 1 advert; (4) ZX Microdrive and ZX Interface 1 information leaflet; (5) Exatron ‘Stringy Floppy’ advert; (6) Rotronics Wafadrive advert; (7) Sinclair QL information leaflet; (8) ZX Spectrum Expansion System information leaflet.


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RETROSPECTIVE – 3D Monster Maze (J K Greye/New Generation, 1982)

I was initially going to review this game, but upon reflection there seemed to be very little point. The fact that you should get this game goes without saying. In fact, this game is a universally accepted classic. Is the game play good? Yes. Does it have replay value? Oodles – but this game is more than the sum of these typical attributes.. ..this game is something else, it arguably started an entire genre of video gaming.

Most would consider that ‘Resident Evil‘ created ‘survival horror‘ gaming, but it was way before the release of Capcom‘s seminal game that we were running from monsters.. ..’3D Monster Maze‘ was almost certainly when horror and gaming were first combined. Moreover, it was one of the very first games to take place in three dimensions on any computer system. Now a common feature of contemporary games (there has even been somewhat of a 2D comeback in recent years, e.g. ‘Canabalt‘ and ‘Terraria‘), this was an amazing break through in the early ’80s.

3DMM Cassette JKG    3DMM Cassette NGS

I remember clearly the first time I ever played ‘3D Monster Maze‘ (how many games can you say that about?), my anticipation was high as friends had already told me how good it was.. ..as I patiently waited for the fuzzy loading lines to end, I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.. ..I needn’t have worried.. ..I had never seen anything like it before. It was different, it was, dare I say.. ..’professional‘.

3D Monster Maze‘ was initially released by ‘J K Greye‘ software for the Sinclair ZX81, with 16K ram expansion in 1982. It had been programmed in the previous year by Malcom Evans. Evans had been experimenting with 3D effects on Sinclair’s machine and Greye suggested making it into a game, including a monster.

It was later released, again in 1982, by Evans’s own start-up ‘New Generation Software‘, which become well known for 3D games (none of which ever eclipsed the splendour of ‘3D Monster Maze‘).

The game takes place in a randomly generated 16 x 18 cell maze, where a Tyrannosaurus Rexlies in wait‘ for you (I mean come on.. ..3D and a T. Rex!.. ..what more could a young gamer want in the early 80’s?).

Once you start moving the hunt is on.. ..the closer you get to the monster, the more active he becomes.. ..until ‘you hear footsteps approaching‘ and ‘he has seen you‘. When you see the words ‘run he is beside/behind you‘, you almost jump out of your skin!.. ..all of this on a Sinclair ZX81! You can outrun the monster, but panic and the infamous lack of response from the keyboard usually meant you were ‘a gonner‘!

3DMM Rex

Points depend upon how many steps you had taken. When the game ends, you can either appeal your sentence to ‘roam the maze forever‘, or continue the last maze. If you appeal, a randomize statement either sends you back to the same maze or it resets the computer, you have a 50:50 chance of either of these scenarios.

3DMM EndWhat was so technically incredible about this game is that it used the standard Sinclair ZX81 graphics set. Evan’s used the graphical characters with panache so that the resolution appeared roughly to be double that of most games of the time. He also used the dithering characters to give a third grey colour, which was used for the walls of the maze. The 3D engine was written in Z80 assembler, augmented by several lines of BASIC for less intensive tasks. As such the game speed can be controlled by altering the ‘loop delay’ at line 370 in the BASIC code.

I loved this game the first time I played it, and I still do.. ..it changed the industry. Games were generally more professional and ‘polished’ after this, it ‘pushed’ 3D and introduced us to ‘survival horror’.. ..not many games have done so much, so early, on such humble hardware. A total and utter masterpiece!


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RETROSPECTIVE – ‘Mire Mare’ – Part 2 (Ultimate, unreleased)

mire mare logo large

In continuing our ‘Mire Mare’ retrospective we will be examining the rumours that the game was ‘nearly completed’ and looking at what a rather enterprising group of coders have done to bring the dream alive.

In the early 2000’s a claim made by a mysterious ex-employee of Ultimate stated that he was employed in marketing in the late 1980’s and that ‘Mire Mare’ had indeed existed, that he had actually played it and that it was fantastic!

If this was true why wasn’t it released? The source revealed that apparently the Stamper Brothers (owners of Ultimate) were really unhappy that US Gold simply wanted Ultimate for its back catalogue. When they found out that ‘Mire Mare’ (their grand finale title) would have simply been released on the Kixx budget label, they were so disappointed they simply lied and said that it was incomplete.

So far, all of this seems very plausible and very exciting.. ..as it implies that there could well be a near complete copy of the game somewhere in the Rare Ltd. archives or at least held by the Stamper brothers!

Unfortunately, the story had plenty of anomalies.. ..particularly in relation to some of the time-lines described by the source for various games development; they were either simply wrong or implausible. Indeed this ‘former employee’ seemed to be very hard to identify, even by his former colleagues; Leigh Loveday (who worked at Ultimate at the time) confirmed it.. ..he had never heard of this mystery colleague.

So, unfortunately, the existence of a partially working version of ‘Mire Mare’ seemed to be nothing but a hoax.

The Stamper brothers are renowned in the games industry, not only for developing fantastic games, but also because they have rarely given interviews or speak of their work. It seems we will never hear from them if ‘Mire Mare’ did exist in some form.

However, over the years reporters have spoken to various employees at Rare Ltd. (especially after the Stampers left) and inquired if anything was ever revealed about the game. The story is always the same.. ..the artwork had been completed, but nothing else.. ..no game. It seems unlikely that the Stampers would continue the pretence for so many intervening years, so it seems the story ends here – there is no elusive copy of ‘Mire Mare’.

But, the story doesn’t completely end here – firstly we can speculate (excuse the pun!) what the actual planned version of ‘Mire Mare’ might have looked like. We will never know for sure, probably only the Stamper brothers know.. ..but there are clues. The cover art work for the game features a fire pit/volcano with flames and a phoenix type creature, but the name suggest a swamp environment. There are other clues.. ..included in the now very rare ‘Ultimate a Collected Works’  is an often missing map.

Land of Ultimatum Map

The rare ‘Land of Ultimatum’ map

On that map, the ‘Land of Ultimatum’, all of the Sabreman games are fully referenced. However, there are also fire pits which do not feature in any of the released games and must therefore relate to ‘Mire Mare’. Around these fire pits are several areas; ‘Dark Mountains’, ‘Mount Sol’ and ‘Stone Hills’, maybe these were to be zones within the final game?

Secondly, the desire for ‘Mire Mare’ is so strong that a group of fan’s have even coded their own homebrew vision of the game, entitled ‘Land of Mire Mare’.. ..and it’s OK, not up to Ultimate standards, but hey.. ..at least Sabreman finally gets his last adventure!

Land of Mire Mare

‘Land of Mire Mare’ game play screen

Land of Mire Mare’ is clearly inspired by the Sabreman series and features many recognisable locations and enemies, giving the series some ending justice. Maybe taking the hint from Loveday’s comments on the game, it plays more like ‘Sabre Wulf’ than Ultimate’s later isometric games.


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