Inside The Chaos Engine
Mike Montgomery and Dan Malone revisit their seminal 16-bit run-and-gun co-operative blaster
It’s funny to think how language changes and evolves. When The Chaos Engine was released 25 years ago, the term ‘steampunk’ had yet to permeate the public consciousness – rather than conjuring images of people in top hats and goggles operating machinery festooned with brass valves and analogue gauges, it was more likely to draw a blank stare. But The Chaos Engine is most definitely a steampunk game.
The plot is simple: Baron Fortesque has been experimenting with early computers, but also time and space, and has created a machine known as the Chaos Engine. It quickly becomes self-aware and, as self-aware machines tend to do, turned on its creator. Suddenly Victorian England is beset by bizarre happenings – both man and beast are mutated into ravenous monstrosities, and even the landscape itself has
become warped. With no other good options available, a team of mercenaries is hired to go in and take the machine down by force.
The public got its first look at The Chaos
Engine in magazine previews as far back as late 1991, and a rare glimpse of the game in action was afforded to viewers of Gamesmaster early in 1992. “You could see from their early demos that it was going to be a classic,” says Andy Nuttall, who reviewed the game for Amiga Format back in 1993. “Magic Pockets hadn’t long been out, so they were at the top of their game. It was that tingly feeling that you got when you knew the history of a top game developer and knew what they were capable of, and then you start to see that magic working on a new game.”
The top-down shooter was already very recognisable, even at an early stage. Obviously taking influences from the likes of Commando – “Did it?” Mike Montgomery, managing director of the Bitmap Brothers, cuts us off. Apparently, the conclusion drawn by many contemporary magazines was not quite on the money. “To be quite honest, the game that influenced us the most was probably Gauntlet.” This makes sense – the labyrinthine levels and emphasis on co-operative play seen in The Chaos Engine are definitely qualities you’d associate with Atari Games’ arcade hit. “Everything is influenced by something, subconsciously or consciously, but I think it was more subconscious – this was the designers getting together and saying, ‘This is what we would want to play,’” Mike elaborates.
"the game that influenced us the most Was probably gauntlet" mike montgomery
It’s astonishing how much of the final game’s quality was evident so far from release, but The Chaos Engine had already been in development for over half a year by this point. The Forest and Workshops graphics looked pretty much complete, and the level layouts were already complex and interesting (though decidedly different from their final incarnations, with far more items). Enemy sprites and player characters are all easy to identify as being close to final, if not final, and there was even an early version of the equipment screen in there. For any fan of the developer, the game caught the eye. “Dan Malone is a master of that style; I loved what he and the others had done with the sort of stippled relief to make everything look metallic,” says Andy. “Plenty of games used a similar trick, but the Bitmaps’ stuff just had that look – you knew instantly who had made the game.”
What couldn’t be gleaned from those early previews was the game’s amazing soundtrack. The techno tracks set the pace of the action with pounding beats and had a dynamic element, as new sections would kick in at various points – for example, near the end of a stage. “I remember the audio as a whole being really strong;
Richard Joseph was a genius,” says Andy. “The sound and speech effects were fantastic, really suited to the game and helped build the strong atmosphere.” Indeed, the voice that would declare “Node activated!” and “Special power!” is as iconic a part of the game as any.
However, the game’s most memorable audio was composed outside of the Bitmap Brothers camp. Joi, an alternative dance act comprised of brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher, composed the theme that accompanies the intro sequence. It’s an unforgettable track, opening with a siren and other industrial noises set against drum beats, and one that took advantage
of the Amiga. Of course, such a collaboration was not unusual for the Bitmap Brothers, given its previous work with licensed music on Xenon 2.
But what was astonishing about those early previews was that three characters were on screen at all times, compared to two in the final game. At this point in the design, even with two human players, the presence of a computer-controlled partner was a constant. It was ultimately dropped, but the fact that it was even considered showed how much faith the Bitmap Brothers had in The Chaos Engine’s major distinguishing point – its artificial intelligence. If you weren’t playing with a second player, you’d have a Cpucontrolled partner to fill that role.
Each of the six controllable characters didn’t just play differently in your hands – they behaved differently when controlled by the computer. “The thing with the characters was that we gave them all different attributes, similar to what you’d do in an RPG,” says Mike. “It was very important that for each character, that people knew that they were different. Otherwise, what was the
“We gave them all different attributes, similar to What you’d do in an rpg” mike montgomery
point of having characters?” These attributes would ultimately determine how closely each character would follow the ‘ideal’ line of play – and in fact, a lot of work was put in to ensure that the CPU didn’t just do all the work for the player.
“What we actually did was we played it as a two-player game, and then we spent a lot of time analysing what the players were actually doing in real life, and then tried out hardest to code that in,” says Mike Montgomery, the managing director of the Bitmap Brothers. “What we’d do is we’d actually have two computer players in testing, and people would just watch it and make sure it was working, and then just keep tweaking it until it was right.” This was one of the tasks that would ultimately serve to prolong the development of the game, but the effort was worth it – AI characters behave convincingly, providing cover fire when you need it and pushing forward often, occasionally blundering into traps just like we do.
Andy’s memories of the AI centre on one of its more amusingly traits. “I remember the CPU stealing all my stuff! In two-player I expect to have to fight for collectibles, but in one-player to break open a stash of loot or have a monster drop stuff, to then have the Amiga nip in before me and pick it all up,” he recalls. That wasn’t the only impact the AI had on his experience. “The enemies felt really good, like they were deliberately avoiding your fire but still possible to kill with a few quickly developed tactics,” he remembers. “I don’t know how ‘intelligent’ they were; they were hyped as intelligent so I was expecting them to be, and they certainly felt advanced.”
Useful AI partners were important, though, as The Chaos Engine wasn’t a simple run-and-
gun affair. The levels were mazes, hiding many secrets and often multiple exits. Anything you did had consequences, from altering the stage layout to triggering a monster ambush. Making progress was as much about smart decision making as it was twitch reactions, and the game even de-emphasised traditional genre staples – for example, the game only features one traditional boss fight. “I think we were trying to break the mould slightly,” says Mike. “Most other games had end of level bosses, but that’s not what The Chaos Engine’s about, really.”
The Chaos Engine finally arrived on the Amiga in early 1993, and the press heaped accolades on it. At the lower end of the scale, CU Amiga gave it 81% with the assessment that it was “by no means the best that the genre has to offer, but it’s a frantic blast all the same.” Amiga Action awarded the game 92%, commenting that, “It’s obvious that the Bitmap Brothers’ sole intention is to get back up on the award-winners’
podium.” The One gave the game 85%,
Andy Nuttall’s review in Amiga Format gave the game 90%, and Stuart Campbell gave it 89% in Amiga Power – a score remarkable enough that publisher Renegade took out an advert in Computer Trade Weekly declaring the game “So good, even that b*st*rd Stuart Campbell likes it!”
Did Mike and the rest of the team expect such a positive reception? “Of course we did. We were the Bitmap Brothers,” he responds without hesitation. The game was then converted across a variety of computer and console formats, coming out well in every case. The game was retitled Soldiers Of Fortune in North America, where the Preacher was also retooled into the Scientist. A sequel soon went into production, but found a smaller audience due to the decline of the Amiga market. Still, the game remains in demand, with the 2013 PC rerelease being the most convenient way to play today.
Revisiting The Chaos Engine reveals that it’s hard as nails, but still a lot of fun. Andy recently took the time to do so himself, and came to a similar conclusion. “A while ago my son and I were talking about two player co-op and headto-head games, and I talked to him about Spy Vs Spy and The Chaos Engine/the Chaos Engine 2.
I found them all in the loft, and we had a fun few hours revisiting them. They really stand up today, we had a lot of fun,” he confirms. Of course, there’s a painful twist that many gamer parents will be familiar with: “Unfortunately he’s already a lot better at games than I am, but it’s still great sharing the nostalgia with him and he digs it.”
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see The Chaos Engine and its crew back in action, but that’s something which feels surprisingly okay. We’ll always treasure the memories we made playing this game, whether the partnership was between an AI Brigand and a lonely Navvie player, or a father and son arguing over who gets to pick up the food. When we feel like creating new ones, the original game is just as good as ever.
» [Amiga] You’ll frequently get ambushed by monsters when important events happen, including node activations and key grabs. » [Amiga] Above left:The enemies become progressively more bizarre as you get closer to the corrupting influence of the machine.» [Amiga] Left: Late in the game, enemies will even ambush you from upper levels.
» [Amiga] It’s hard to tell, but we’re playing with the CPU’S assistance here. It covers us well as we take out the upper-left enemy.
» [Amiga] Some levels have multiple exits. As a rule, the harder the exit is to access, the better a position you’ll start in on the next stage.
» [Amiga] Things really start to heat up in Fortesque Mansion. The carnage rarely lets up, even when you have puzzles to solve.