From The Ar­chives: Bits Stu­dios

As one of the UK’S most pro­lific de­vel­op­ers, Bits Stu­dios worked on some of videogam­ing’s best-known li­censed ti­tles while try­ing its hand with a small num­ber of orig­i­nal games. Founder Foo Katan and some of his for­mer de­vel­op­ers rem­i­nisce

Retro Gamer - - CONTENTS - Words by David Crookes

We take a look at the Bri­tish de­vel­oper that loved the Game Boy and li­cences

Foo Katan is driv­ing, steer­ing his way around the sun-kissed streets of LA while cast­ing his mind back 30 years to the days when he set up Bits Stu­dios, the of­ten-over­looked London-based com­pany that burst into life in 1989. “Do you know what Bits meant?” he asks, an­swer­ing be­fore Retro Gamer can guess at a riff on bits and bytes. “Be­lief In The So­lu­tion,” he con­tin­ues. And with that, he takes us on a jour­ney through the 17 years of a com­pany that be­came known for its strong re­la­tion­ship with Nin­tendo and a string of big-name li­cences.

For Foo, the trip be­gan in 1982 when, as a teenager, he had been cod­ing alone on the BBC Mi­cro and Com­modore 64. With his friend, Jez San, he ended up work­ing for Sil­ver­soft dur­ing the sum­mer, a move which in­spired Jez to set up Arg­onaut Soft­ware and

Foo to code­velop Sky­line At­tack for the C64. It was a time of great ac­tiv­ity for the pair. They also coedited the tape-based emag CPC 464 Com­put­ing and worked with Si­mon Rock­man on a book called Quan­tum The­ory.

Most cru­cially, Foo and Jez had writ­ten the cross­de­vel­op­ment tool PDS (Pro­gram­mer’s De­vel­op­ment Sys­tem). Com­pris­ing an Apri­cot PC, an as­sem­bler, de­bug­ger, edi­tor, pro­file and graph­ics tool, it made de­vel­op­ment on 8-bit com­put­ers such as the C64, MSX, ZX Spec­trum and Am­strad CPC straight­for­ward. Team­ing up with fel­low coder An­drew Glais­ter, Foo sold the sys­tem to other devs through a com­pany called PD Sys­tems Ltd. “It was dur­ing the mar­ket­ing of the PDS at the CES in Las Ve­gas on 1989 that I be­gan to re­alise just how big the con­sole busi­ness was,” Foo says. Spot­ting the up­com­ing Game Boy, he set up a team to create con­sole games on his re­turn.

This pre­sented prob­lems of its own. Not only did

Bits not have a his­tory with Nin­tendo con­soles, it was dif­fi­cult to be­come a Nin­tendo de­vel­oper. “Over six months, we re­verse-en­gi­neered the Game Boy,” Foo says. Even­tu­ally a way around Nin­tendo’s block on un­li­censed de­vel­op­ers was found,and this al­lowed Foo to visit var­i­ous pub­lish­ers at the Win­ter CES in Jan­uary 1990. He walked away with com­mis­sions to create Chase HQ and R-type for the Game Boy.

Chase HQ was coded by Richard Chap­pells with an artist cred­ited only as Rosie and it was the first western-

de­vel­oped game Taito had pub­lished in Ja­pan. R-type was cre­ated by Jason Austin and Mark A Jones, with mu­sic for both games by David Whit­taker. “We had the guys work­ing out-of-house and in their own homes,” Foo says, “and they were in two-per­son teams with my­self as pro­ducer. Jason was an amaz­ing pro­gram­mer and he pro­duced a great ver­sion of R-type.”

The Game Boy rapidly be­came Bits Stu­dios’ pri­mary plat­form and R-type sold more than 700,000 copies. Arg­onaut handed Bits the rights to de­velop Loopz for the NES. The de­vel­oper then went on to create Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, T2:ter­mi­na­tor 2 – Judg­ment Day, The Amaz­ing Spi­der-man, Castelian, Last Ac­tion Hero and R-type II for the Game Boy. “Bits was also pro­duc­ing the Game Boy de­vel­op­ment kit,” says Gina Jack­son who joined in 1992. “I was taken on at the com­pany be­cause I had fin­ished a masters in ren­der pro­gram­ming and I’d done a lot of stuff with 3D Stu­dio, but when my ma­chine was ren­der­ing, I’d be sol­der­ing boards to make the dev kits that were be­ing sent all over the coun­try.”

Gina be­gan at Bits just be­fore it moved from Har­row to Crick­le­wood, London. “It was an in­sane place above a news­pa­per distri­bu­tion cen­tre,” Gina re­calls. “There was al­ways this flirt­ing worry that if the news­pa­pers ever caught fire, we’d all be doomed.” While this was tak­ing place, how­ever, the de­vel­op­ers con­tin­ued creat­ing games and demos for Foo to take to pub­lish­ers for fu­ture com­mis­sions. The com­pany was grow­ing fast.

“T2: Ter­mi­na­tor 2 – Judg­ment Day had been a turn­ing point for us and it al­lowed us to ac­cel­er­ate our growth,” Foo says. With great graph­ics and chal­leng­ing lev­els that pro­vided var­ied game­play, the side-scroller had in­deed re­viewed well, draw­ing upon scenes from the movie that en­sured it was per­fectly lined up to co­in­cide with the film’s re­lease.

Its suc­cess gave the firm con­fi­dence to try and branch out. So as well as pro­duc­ing an orig­i­nal ti­tle – the fu­tur­is­tic sports game, Space Football: One On One which was an ex­clu­sive for the SNES – it also made in­roads in Ja­pan with Castelian, a Game Boy and NES ver­sion of Ne­bu­lus that was re­leased as Ky­oro Chan Land and which is re­ported to have sold well. The de­vel­oper was also the only third-party de­vel­op­ment house ever used by Irem Cor­po­ra­tion, with sin­gle-player plat­former Saigo No Nin­dou be­ing re­leased only in Ja­pan for the Game Boy.

By now, Bits was firmly es­tab­lished as a Nin­tendo de­vel­oper. “We’d formed lots of strong re­la­tion­ships with con­sole com­pa­nies but Nin­tendo was top for us,” says Foo. “We be­came very close, and I could never speak more highly of Shigeru Miyamoto.” The love for Nin­tendo’s con­soles saw Bits de­velop Dream TV, Geno­cide 2 and The Itchy & Scratchy Game for

the SNES. In each case, the games were made by ever-larger, ded­i­cated teams rather across de­part­ments. “We wanted the de­vel­op­ers to feel that they owned the games they were mak­ing,” Foo says.

Talk­ing to those de­vel­op­ers, it’s clear there was good ca­ma­raderie be­tween the staff. Lead tester Stephen Hal­lett was only on a three-month con­tract but says he stayed for two years “mainly be­cause of the peo­ple”. Com­poser/sound de­signer Paul Weir also talks of high qual­ity devs while Gina was struck by how di­verse the com­pany was. “When I left at least 25 per cent were women, there were lots of non-whites and many peo­ple from a work­ing class back­ground,” she says. “It was a setup that you don’t see these days.”

It meant there was joy when a game did well and sad­ness when one failed. A ma­jor blow was New

Day, one of the games which formed a joint ven­ture be­tween Bits Stu­dios and Philips Me­dia. Due for re­lease in 1999, it was am­bi­tious – set to fea­ture 60 real-life char­ac­ters and filmed at the Round­house in Cam­den, north London, us­ing 16 dig­i­tal cam­eras on a 360-de­gree blue screen cir­cu­lar stage. Huge amounts of money was poured into the game, yet it ended up be­ing canned, much to the dis­ap­point­ment of those work­ing on it.

“New Day would have had life­like char­ac­ters and it was be­ing ear­marked for Philips CD-ROM plat­form,” Foo ex­plains. “But even though it caught the imag­i­na­tion Philips pulled out. I still think we could have pulled it off with more re­sources and time but it didn’t quite work that way.”

It wasn’t the only axed game. Oth­ers in­cluded Riqa, a game com­mis­sioned by Nin­tendo that would have in­tro­duced a ri­val to Lara Croft by pro­vid­ing a new hero­ine in a third-per­son setup, and the first-per­son shooter Die Hard 64 (which emerged in 2017 in a playable early form al­beit with in­com­plete lev­els).

Even so, there were un­doubted gems that did see the light of day. Aside from R-type DX in 1999, the new mil­len­nium brought the ace real-time strat­egy War­locked for the Game Boy Color, a master­piece of knights, wiz­ards, tight lev­els and se­crets which, an­noy­ingly, was only re­leased in the US. Bits also dab­bled in on­line gam­ing with Vir­tual Ath­lete and Lab Rat. Both used pro­pri­etary 3D Am­ber tech­nol­ogy de­vel­oped by Bits’ tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Jerome Muf­fat-meri­dol and they were re­leased un­der a new Games­mag­net sub­sidiary. “Vir­tual Ath­lete was a pi­o­neer­ing on­line game but the mar­ket wasn’t ready for it and I feel we were ahead of our time,” says Foo. “We didn’t have the fi­nan­cial power to take it for­ward.”

In­deed, fi­nance was an on­go­ing is­sue. “Like many in­de­pen­dent stu­dios at the time, Bits was al­ways strug­gling to make ends meet and it was in a con­stant bat­tle to win pub­lish­ing deals for orig­i­nal or li­censed

IP,” ex­plains Neil De­jyothin, who joined as Bits as web man­ager and PR in 2001. “They were un­for­tu­nate with two Game Boy Ad­vance projects co­de­named Jet Rid­ers and Wiz­ards which were cut­ting edge at the time and looked and played fan­tas­ti­cally. I be­lieve Bits came close to con­vinc­ing Nin­tendo to take on Jet Rid­ers to be Wave

We wanted the de­vel­op­ers to feel that they owned the games they were mak­ing Foo Katan

Race, but in the end Nin­tendo de­cided it didn’t want to put the fran­chise on a hand­held sys­tem. Wiz­ards was the nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to War­locked, and as far as I can re­mem­ber, Bits came very close to seal­ing a deal to do a con­tract to con­vert this into a Lord Of The Rings ti­tle, but ul­ti­mately that ended up with EA.”

Bits was luck­ier in bag­ging the first per­son shooter Die Hard Vendetta in 2002, a game that took place af­ter the first three Die Hard movies. Play­ers had to stealth­ily ne­go­ti­ate their way through nu­mer­ous lev­els to save John Mc­clane’s kid­napped daugh­ter. “It pushed the bound­aries, but it could have done bet­ter,” Foo says. “We also lost the rights to base the first level in a fa­mous LA mu­seum so we had to re­build the first level in just two weeks. A night­mare.”

At this stage, Bits had around 40 peo­ple work­ing for it both in-house and free­lance, down from a peak of 90 a cou­ple of years be­fore. “There were two teams, the larger work­ing on the cur­rent game and the smaller team work­ing on the next ti­tle,” says Stephen who worked at Bits in 2002 and 2003. “Their di­rec­tion just seemed to be to get what­ever work they could, there didn’t seem to be a long term plan be­yond that.”

The team cre­ated Sega Ar­cade Gallery for the Game Boy Ad­vance while Rogue Ops was pub­lished for the Xbox, Game­cube and Plays­ta­tion 2 (with the Xbox ver­sion far­ing best). In 2005, the ac­tion-ad­ven­ture Con­stan­tine, based on the film of the same name, was launched. Paul, who had joined in 2002 and con­tin­ued at Bits for four years, re­calls hav­ing to do all of his work on this game be­fore hav­ing ac­cess to any of the movie au­dio – “I was quite pleased on watch­ing it, how close I got in some in­stances,” he says – but he says he was left to get on with the job.

“The stu­dio it­self was quite a dive,” he con­tin­ues. “It was in an old con­verted build­ing, I can’t re­mem­ber what it was but it was an odd shape for a games stu­dio, dark and grimy. The best space was the au­dio room. They’d built a small but nicely-made stu­dio mix room, which is where I spent most of my time, with an ad­di­tional fo­ley record­ing room, so from my per­spec­tive it was ideal.”

Even so, it was be­com­ing clear – in­ter­nally at least – that Bits Stu­dios was strug­gling. By this time Foo had cre­ated a new com­pany called Play­wize and made Bits a sub­sidiary as he sought to create on­line gam­ing soft­ware in­clud­ing 3D Poker. “The game space had be­come un­ten­able,” Foo ex­plains. “EA was los­ing money and the hard­core space was tur­bu­lent. We had to tran­si­tion.” Un­for­tu­nately, it spelled the end of Bits Stu­dios which closed in 2006, fol­lowed closely by Play­wize which fol­lowed a cou­ple of years later. “I will never for­get Bits Stu­dios, though,” Foo con­cludes. “It was a re­ally tal­ented stu­dio and one that I loved be­ing in­volved with.”

» [Game Boy]un­like the con­sole ver­sions of the game, Alien 3 on the Game Boy was more about solv­ing puz­zles and ex­plor­ing.

» [Game Boy Color] Pro­duced ex­clu­sively for the Game Boy Color, War­locked was one of Bits Stu­dios’ finest games.

» [SNES] It could have been good but we’d have rather nailed our tongue to a car, al­lowed it to speed away and smashed out head with a ham­mer than play Itchy & Scratchy again.

» [SNES] Bits Stu­dios pro­duced the SNES and Mega Drive ver­sions of Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein, the de­vel­op­ment of which in­volved a video shoot.

» [Mega Drive] No Es­cape was based on the 1994 movie and it was pub­lished by Sony Image­soft for the Mega Drive, SNES and PC.

» [PS2] Bits Stu­dios made much of a unique first-per­son con­trol sys­tem but Die Hard Vendetta ended up be­ing quite fid­dly.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.