Bru­tal Leg­end

The story of Speed­ball 2, the fu­ture-sport clas­sic forged ed in the fires of Brit­soft’s 16bit glory lory days


When you wake up be­ing mas­tur­bated by a great big horny go­rilla, you’d best look like you’re en­joy­ing it. So ad­vises Thun­der­crack!, a porno­graphic black com­edy hor­ror B-movie, one of many weird fa­bles to pass through Lon­don’s no­to­ri­ous Scala Cinema dur­ing the late 1980s. An­other tells of hooli­gan fu­ture­s­ports, lux­u­ri­ous dun­geons, and hap­pen­stance wor­thy of a god­like pis­ton-pow­ered com­puter. Let’s start at the be­gin­ning.

Daniel Malone spent his time at Ip­swich Art Col­lege ar­gu­ing with all but one of his teach­ers: the ty­pog­ra­phy tu­tor who let him draw comic­book char­ac­ters in class. Not that he didn’t like the sub­ject, she un­der­stood, but he al­ready had two masters in su­per­hero artists Jack Kirby and John Buscema.

“Batman was the first guy I drew,” Malone ex­plains, “but Mar­vel is my big­gest in­flu­ence. But so lit­tle of it ex­isted then that you of­ten had to draw some­thing if you wanted to see it – and I wanted it, so I drew and drew and drew.”

Ex­posed to Amer­i­can edi­tions of The Fan­tas­tic Four by his dad, pro­lific com­mer­cial artist Jerry Malone, Dan’s child­hood favourite was as­tro­naut-turned-gran­ite-skinned-clob­berer the Thing. Af­ter Mar­vel UK launched The Mighty World Of Mar­vel in 1972, its first Bri­tish weekly, Malone never missed an is­sue. He was be­mused, though: its char­ac­ters, once iconic, now lacked charm and def­i­ni­tion. Not for an­other 50 is­sues did he re­alise his mis­take: MWOM was a re­print, its sto­ries dat­ing back to the 1960s. That’s when it clicked.

“Kirby, the king, had evolved his style to have this graphic rock-like look for the Thing, and it was a pure, nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion of him just draw­ing the char­ac­ter over and over again. That was mag­i­cal. I never for­got it.”

Nei­ther Mar­vel nor Bri­tain’s own 2000AD were hir­ing when Malone left col­lege a decade later. A brief stint at un­der­ground pub­lisher Knock­about Comics of­fered work but lit­tle pay, and even worse if it was ‘a bad month’.

It was his loyal ty­pog­ra­phy tu­tor who spot­ted an ad in me­dia digest Cam­paign. It seemed that some­one did need a ‘2000AD-style artist’.

Armed with a thick port­fo­lio of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar col­lege work, the grad­u­ate Malone was “thrilled just to be in Lon­don, in King’s Cross, right in the heart of it. Well, more in the armpit, with fuck­ing crowds of smack deal­ers out­side by the snooker hall. But The Scala was great, bril­liant. You had to run the gaunt­let just to get in the place.”

Up its in­con­gru­ous fairy­tale tower he went, to rooms ad­ja­cent to its ‘cinema of sin’. Malone’s rough­house style sat­is­fied mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Pete Stone, and the job of pro­fes­sional artist was his.

The stu­dio proper was on the next floor down, where he was in­tro­duced to his new desk, his new col­leagues, and – wait, what was with all the key­boards and mon­i­tors?

“Oh, so you’re do­ing com­puter games, then!” Malone re­alised.

This was Palace Soft­ware in 1985, which, Malone re­mem­bers, was just af­ter Live Aid. “I had no in­ter­est in com­puter games,” he says. “I’d come all the way up to Lon­don for a job in­ter­view I thought was for comics.” But what­ever, he gave it a try, stum­bling not only into the game in­dus­try’s first wave of ded­i­cated artists, but also into one of its true pi­o­neers.

He con­tin­ues: “If you look at games com­pa­nies at the time, Palace was very artist-led. They wanted to make the artists’ ideas work. That was ‘what the pro­gram­mers were there for’.”

“They showed me a run­ning ver­sion of Caul­dron on the ZX Spectrum, and I thought it was just some rough demo. ‘Is this the fin­ished game?’ It looked ba­sic, al­most crude. I re­alised I’d have to scale down ev­ery­thing I was do­ing. When I did the char­ac­ter Tal for [ The Sa­cred Ar­mour Of] An­tiriad, he was two 8×8 sprites on the Com­modore 64. The sprite edi­tor we used meant we had to draw him in two halves and stick him to­gether. I had to draw him out on pa­per first, ac­tu­ally draw these big pix­els on a bit of graph pa­per just to de­sign the char­ac­ter.” Thus be­gins the jour­ney of what Two Point Stu­dios founder

Gary Carr con­sid­ers “the best pixel artist in the world”. In to­tal, Palace Soft­ware would in­cu­bate four fu­ture Bitmap Broth­ers: Malone, Carr, au­dio wizard Richard Joseph, and de­sign­er­coder Sean Griffiths. Carr re­calls: “It was a cool com­pany. We felt we were do­ing some­thing edgy. We were part of a film com­pany and had in­ter­est­ing peo­ple every­where.” That would be an un­der­state­ment. When they weren’t mak­ing games such as Caul­dron and the in­fa­mous Bar­bar­ian, Palace’s peo­ple would climb the stairs be­hind the Scala’s au­di­to­rium and watch its whacked-out panoply of movies and movie­go­ers: the Lau­rel and Hardy ap­pre­ci­a­tion so­ci­ety Sons Of The Desert; the own­ers of the oc­ca­sional la­tex glove found in the aisles af­ter les­bian all-nighters; and, Malone re­mem­bers, “this cat that used to walk around on its hind legs”.

Malone was an avid skate­boarder, and would of­ten ride across The Scala’s invit­ingly tiled floor. The Scala, in re­turn, would in­fil­trate the stu­dio and its games, as the artist re­calls:

“Stan­ley Schem­bri used to get re­ally an­gry at his com­puter and lit­er­ally burn it with a lighter and aerosol. The key­board caught fire once and he chucked it out of the win­dow, into Pen­tonville Road.” Sean Griffiths also re­mem­bers lead pro­gram­mer Richard Le­in­fell­ner let­ting his C64 go – this time from the roof.

Seared into the mem­ory of one-time jour­nal­ist Gary Penn, mean­while, is Schem­bri and Malone’s visit to Com­modore User mag­a­zine: “Stan was off his fuck­ing… He and Dan came up in his Mini. We’d all been drink­ing, and prob­a­bly worse, when Stan de­cided to drive us around Lon­don with the door open and wav­ing this stick, pre­tend­ing he was blind. I prob­a­bly lit­er­ally shat my­self.”

Palace was mov­ing into 16bit de­vel­op­ment when Malone, some­how still alive, first en­coun­tered The Bitmap Broth­ers. It was a trade show demo of Xenon. “Arcade-style! Sharp! Not the bloody great Lego bricks of the C64!” he gushes. “I was hun­gry for some of that 16bit stuff.” Months later, the Bitmaps’ Speed­ball be­came the lunchtime diet at Palace. Its taste, Carr thought, seemed fa­mil­iar:

“We were an artis­tic com­pany but the Bitmaps went a level fur­ther. They were push­ing the art style dur­ing what was ini­tially an 8bit time­frame. We had great games at Palace, but one didn’t nec­es­sar­ily look or feel like an­other, or feel like it was from the same brand. The Bitmap games came from a sta­ble: they had things you recog­nised in­stantly, cer­tain ways of ap­ply­ing light and colour.

This was the early days of mak­ing com­puter games and it was pretty or­ganic, but they were de­sign­ing from the ground up. Dan had that same in­tegrity.

“I was an artist along­side him, and we were peer-level artists, but I couldn’t sit in the same room in terms of abil­ity. He could hide pix­els when pix­els were like bricks. He could turn a 16-colour pal­ette into a 256-colour pal­ette. He could do ef­fects with colour that used the chroma of the screen, made things hap­pen with pix­els that I couldn’t even dream of. The way he made things look solid was al­most im­pos­si­ble. He al­ready was a Bitmap Brother, he just hap­pened to be at a dif­fer­ent com­pany.”

Not that Palace didn’t have its own rep­u­ta­tion as an artis­tic pow­er­house. Comic-book leg­ends such as Alan Grant and Pat Mills were knock­ing at its door, in fact, keen to col­lab­o­rate. It was

Bar­bar­ian cre­ator Steve Brown, Malone says, who was “in­stru­men­tal in get­ting comic artists like me in­volved in games”. His face dark­ens. “None of that other stuff hap­pened, though, be­cause Palace Pic­tures bled Palace Soft­ware dry.”

The ill for­tune of the stu­dio’s par­ent film com­pany (an­other war story for when you fin­ish read­ing this one) meant that de­spite the con­sid­er­able suc­cess of the Bar­bar­ian games, lit­tle could stop a blood­bath of ac­tive projects. Af­ter The Sa­cred Ar­mour Of An­tiriad in 1986, both of Malone’s next big games were shelved. “Su­per

Thief,” Games Ma­chine mag­a­zine re­ported, “casts the player as a model of un­sul­lied self­ish­ness, rob­bing the fu­ture for all its worth.” As­tound­ing As­tral Ad­ven­tures, mean­while, at­tempted to fill a whole galaxy with such rogues.

No fewer than 19 games were in de­vel­op­ment at Palace, in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally, when Pa­tri­cia Mitchell joined as a pro­ducer. “It was very ap­peal­ing,” she re­calls. “More like movie pro­duc­tion than games and ahead of its time in lots of ways. The qual­ity of the artists’ work was un­par­al­leled, Richard Joseph’s au­dio was ground­break­ing, and ex­ter­nal tal­ent like Zippo Games and Sen­si­ble Soft­ware all should have made for a suc­cess­ful for­mula.

‘The dif­fi­culty was find­ing pro­gram­mers who could craft these ele­ments into playable 16bit games. The fab­u­lous graph­ics ate up mem­ory, the pro­ces­sors had a learn­ing curve, and each ma­chine needed in­di­vid­ual pro­gram­ming to get the best out of the hard­ware.”

Palace killed its 8bit projects first, in a bid to cut costs, but the 16bit in­stalled base was too small to fill the void. Fur­ther­more, the games came out late and un­der­per­formed. “It was the epoch of large pub­lish­ing houses who of­ten owned the dis­trib­u­tors and shaped the mar­ket,” Mitchell says. “It was tough for small in­de­pen­dents.”

Malone re­mem­bers the af­ter­math: “No one knew what was go­ing on, whether you’d have a job one day af­ter the next.” The writ­ing was on the wall, and Mitchell and Stone used their con­tacts to see where peo­ple could go. Mean­while, over by the Thames, the op­po­site was hap­pen­ing for The Bitmap Broth­ers: the stu­dio was di­ver­si­fy­ing. Artist Mark Cole­man was think­ing be­yond what was next on the slate. He de­clares: “I re­ally did not want to do a Speed­ball 2. Hav­ing done Xenon 2 in the in­terim, I was in no mood

to re­visit my past mis­takes. Plus, they were talk­ing about Gods, and that got me re­ally ex­cited. I could vi­su­alise ex­actly how I wanted that game to look, and what we could do with it.”

Sat be­fore the Palace copy of Speed­ball, Malone was con­sid­er­ing his next game, too. He re­mem­bers think­ing out loud: “I re­ally need to see these guys.” Weeks later, he was one of them. “God, it was a hike to get out to Wap­ping,” Malone com­plains. “And when you did it was so quiet – too quiet. There was The Prospect Of Whitby pub, which was all right be­cause peo­ple ac­tu­ally trav­elled to that one, but that was it. There was a Span­ish lass who worked on the top floor of the Bitmaps’ of­fice and had a record la­bel, and she was the only other bit of cre­ativ­ity in that whole block.”

For his first fort­night at Bitmap HQ, Malone was the only per­son work­ing on the new Speed­ball. “They put me on it just to start do­ing the char­ac­ters and fig­ure out the an­gle. They were like: ‘Have you played Speed­ball 1? Right, we want a big­ger pitch, dou­ble the size.’”

Speak­ing to Amiga Power mag­a­zine in 1991, The Bitmap Broth­ers’ Eric Matthews ex­plained: “We knew we had to make it quite dif­fer­ent to be worth do­ing. The in­creased screen size was to make it more ex­cit­ing when you got into the other player’s area – as it is in Kick Off. In the first game you can just throw the ball all the way down the pitch, which makes it far too easy.” It was, he added, “like play­ing in a shoe­box, it’s so claus­tro­pho­bic”.

For Malone, those first weeks would pro­duce a con­sid­er­able body of art­work, al­beit “for my own plea­sure. The brief wasn’t to draw lots of pretty pic­tures, it was to ‘Give us some fuck­ing graph­ics’. Things re­ally only started mov­ing when Rob came in.” Robert Trev­ellyan, like all pro­gram­mers, is a prob­lem-solver. And like a lot of com­puter game pro­gram­mers dur­ing the ’80s, his first big prob­lem was em­ploy­ment. “There was no such thing as a school where you went and ‘did game de­vel­op­ment’,” he re­calls. “With­out some kind of con­tact in the busi­ness, or some good luck, it was hard to get in un­less you could pro­duce a com­plete pack­age. I could never pre­tend or claim to be a game de­signer, and I didn’t have that friend who could do graph­ics, like the guys who did

Civ­i­liza­tion and Rail­road Ty­coon. There was no ob­vi­ous path for me.”

The cousin of a stu­dent friend, how­ever, worked at Elec­tric Dreams, the cel­e­brated la­bel be­hind Spin­dizzy, Fire­track and a host of movie tie-ins and coin-op con­ver­sions. “I went and I talked to them, and I said: ‘I have no ex­pe­ri­ence. Tell me what I have to do, what it takes’. They told me to do an eight-way scrolling demo, and that it should take a cou­ple of weeks.”

Loaned one of the stu­dio’s Com­modore 64s, Trev­ellyan bought a 6502 as­sem­bler – “‘You must be con­fi­dent to spend £50 on soft­ware,’ said the guy in the store” – and de­liv­ered the demo ten days later. They gave him a con­tract there and then. “It’s not like they had a long list of re­sumes from peo­ple with ob­vi­ous qual­i­fi­ca­tions,” he quips. “What could they do?”

The project he worked on was can­celled af­ter six months. He was put in touch with The Bitmap Broth­ers by his su­per­vi­sor, and the process started again: “‘Let’s do a demo and see what you can do’.” So he pro­duced an­other eight-way scrolling demo, this time for the ST, “with com­pletely un­in­ter­est­ing graph­ics, but it showed I could make the hard­ware do some­thing”. That some­thing just hap­pened to be pre­cisely what Speed­ball 2 re­quired.

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