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.