A tribute to the Bitmap brothers
Phwoar! It’s mostly what came to mind when I bought the Bitmap Brothers titles when I was younger. What the hell were they smoking? It was the other thing. Undeniably brilliant and frustrating at the same time, The Bitmap Brothers titles were true works of art. Dystopian works of art. Have you ever imagined a future so dark and corrupt that 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 make a decent steak in this country, but we sure have some development houses to be proud of. They started with the legendary Atari ST with the iconic titles Xenon and Speedball, which you would have already heard of. Xenon, a superb top-down shooter, and Speedball, a futuristic 5v5 rugby-style game (for lack of a better metaphor, postcard suggestions please). If you don’t like difficult games, don’t choose Xenon! Or Xenon 2 for that matter! Playing Xenon 2 as a kid made me rip my hair out and if you can see how I look now, well let’s just say The Bitmap Brothers owes me a wig or two. Speedball was more fun, though be prepared to hit one or two.
The company’s focus was basically on the Atari, Amiga and MS-DOS platforms, but how I’ll remember them is because of the successful 8- and 16-bit conversions they achieved. Coding is a headache, I’ve tried and you can hear some of Bitmap’s ace coder Olly Dibben’s thoughts here. Therefore, whenever ports succeed, they must be rewarded, and this was definitely the case with Speedball 2, Xenon 2, and the other leader of the company, The Chaos Engine. Do you feel that chill down your spine? Yes me too …
“At some point during the interview I admitted that I had hacked into my Speedball II save file to boost my team and explained how I did it. Mike laughed at the thought and said that was the kind of thing he would do. Afterwards. from a couple of interviews they offered me a job. “
-Interview with Olly Dibben: train Bitmap Brothers to code.
Admittedly, The Bitmap Brothers got some help with Xenon 2, which was actually coded by The Assembly Line, which later developed Interphase, which a lot of people (myself included) consider to be the first first-person shooter game. What a good help! Your help could help explain just how beautiful Xenon 2 looks – timeless time encoding and more design time can only lead to good things (er …). Xenon 2 was also the first game to include music by an artist (Bomb the Bass) instead of synthesized beats. The 16-bit version was gigantic, but the game mentioned above, which has led me to being a bald gorilla, was the Master System version. R-Type aside, Xenon 2 is the only shooter worth playing on MS, but it will drive you crazy. You have been warned. The games produced by the company were difficult and I often thought that Xenon 2 was dangerously short of power-ups. This excerpt from Mike Montgomery that I have lynched from Wikipedia may explain it:
“All Bitmap Brothers games … are probably a little difficult. The reason for this was that we designed games that we wanted to play; it was quite difficult for us to think that someone would want to play something that is easy.”
Well thanks for that Mike, maybe I should bill you for all my wigs! An easy mode or something like that would have been nice …
Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe holds a sacred place in many retro gamer libraries, including this gamer. Why? Because it’s damn brilliant (sorry for the pun). Actually, that’s a bad pun. Among all the SB2 violence, I never remember blood, although some of your teammates took a bit of a hit. I could write forever about Speedball 2 (we’ll save it for another day) but the nicest thing to me is that it doesn’t lose anything on either platform. From the original Amiga version to the 8-bit Master System version, they are all playable as hell (pun a little better). The added players and extra pinball things you could hit in the arena are inspired additions. The 8-bit and 16-bit machines, in hindsight, struggled to create enjoyable sports simulations, especially when it came to football or rugby. The dynamics of SB2 made for a fun and brutal experience (improving a bit) that somewhat satiated our need for a sports simulation.
And now to the last piece of the 16-bit puzzle for me, The Chaos Engine. Now what to say about The Chaos Engine … well, it’s chaos really, right? The Bitmap Brothers had produced Gods and Magic Pockets since Speedball 2, but none of the titles really did it for me. The Chaos Engine did it for me, and how! A top-down gun and racing game in a vein similar to … you have to help me … Smash TV? (Thanks a lot Acclaim / Flying Edge …) It was so addictive that I wasted (or spent) my weekends playing. The plot was ridiculous (To Baron Fortesque?) But the whole time travel trick worked! The game also introduced different completion methods through character selection. I don’t know about you, but I always chose the Navvie and Thug combo when possible – destruction is the only way to defeat The Chaos Engine! Regardless, this extended the longevity of the game and apparently that’s what The Bitmap Brothers were all about.
The highly respected “Z” was to follow, in and between the Command and Conquer hybrids. The company produced a few more Speedball sequels as well, though Speedball Arena was sadly canceled before it could be released. A Steam version of Speedball 2 is available for download.
Looking at their previous catalog, I can’t help but think that they could have produced more titles. I can only conclude that they spent their time ensuring that everyone, regardless of what console or system they had, could enjoy their work. And for that I will be eternally grateful.