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
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.