Despite the video gaming world's obsession with offering "cool" experiences such as shooting bad guys, driving fast cars and slaying monstrous dragons, the hobby had a very unfashionable reputation with the mainstream media prior to the start of the '90s. Gamers were seen as spotty, socially awkward kids who huddled around their home computers for hours on end, and developers weren't really held in any higher esteem. This image was perpetuated by the success of people like the Darling siblings and the Oliver Twins, who, like so many British developers of the period, learned to program in their bedrooms. While many industry historians will claim that it wasn't until Sony arrived in the middle of the '90s with its PlayStation brand that gaming became hip and credible, others will point to the birth of a particular British software house as the moment it all changed for the better.
The Bitmap Brothers were founded in 1987 by Mike Montgomery, Eric Matthews and Steve Kelly. One of the first studios to truly exploit the power of 16-bit computers like the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, the Bitmaps created titles like Xenon, Speedball 2, The Chaos Engine andGods – all games which were released to widespread critical acclaim and made their way to Japanese consoles. The company's standing with players was almost unmatched – in the UK, at least – and the studio's members were hailed as video gaming's first true rock stars. The fact that they often sported sunglasses and leather jackets in press photos only helped reinforce this perception.
Now, almost 30 years after the foundation of the studio and over ten years since it ceased to exist as an active developer, UK publisher Read Only Memory has produced The Bitmap Brothers: Universe, a lavish 360-page tome which not only includes a full and exhaustive history of the company but also contains concept artwork, screenshots, box art and exclusive photos.
Written by Duncan Harris – who has contributed to Edge magazine and Rock, Paper, Shotgun in the past and also runs the superb Dead End Thrills website – The Bitmap Brothers: Universe leaves no stone unturned when it comes to documenting the glorious life and tragic death of this legendary codehouse. Interviews with the key players – including Mike Montgomery, Dan Malone (who also supplies the stunning double cover artwork), Mark Coleman, Sean Griffiths, Martin Heath and even former Sega man Tetsuya Mizuguchi (who claims the Bitmaps were a massive influence on his career) flesh out the tale brilliantly with anecdotes and colourful memories, while Tim Simenon (Bomb the Bass) and John Foxx (Nation 12, Ultravox) give some insight into how important a role music played in the success of the company's games.
For example, it's hard to imagine playing the sublime Xenon 2: Megablast without Megablast (Hip Hop on Precinct 13) booming over the top, and Simenon worked closely with the Bitmap Brothers to ensure his track was faithfully replicated on the humble audio hardware of the home computers and consoles of the era. Former Ultravox man Foxx would craft the menacing theme to 1990's Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe – a game that is often considered to be the company's crowning glory – while 1991's Magic Pockets sampled Betty Boo's Doin' the Do.
While the Bitmaps were focused on home computers for the majority of their career, several of the company's biggest titles were ported to consoles, giving the firm global fame. Speedball made its way to the 8-bit NES (as KlashBall) and Sega Master System, while its sequel would receive even more more conversions, eventually ending up on the NES, Mega Drive and even the Game Boy. The Chaos Engine and Gods also made the jump to consoles, with the latter – the book reveals – almost being a CD-enhanced launch title for the abandoned (and recently rediscovered) SNES PlayStation.
Like Read Only Memory's Sensible Software 1986-1999 (which covers another of the UK's premier '90s studios and one which had strong ties to the Bitmaps thanks to its association with Renegade Software, the publisher founded by the Bitmap Brothers in 1991 which was eventually sold to Time Warner in 1995) this book features plenty of amusing moments that tread the fine line between comedy and tragedy; tales of people sleeping under desks in duvets stolen from their kids, business meetings taking place topless due to an impromptu fish tank clean and people being kicked so hard in their nether regions that they throw up. These are just three examples (all of which involve the Mike Montgomery, who is now the sole owner of the Bitmap Brothers brand) but there are countless others which bring colour and detail to what was a remarkable time for the UK games industry.
The Bitmap Brothers closed in 2004, having endured several failed publishing relationships, lengthy development periods and numerous staff exoduses, but the brand lives on under Montgomery's watchful eye. It's possible to enjoy titles like Speedball 2 and Z on iOS, and these serve as a timely reminder of just how talented this team of developers was during its glory years. As such, The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is an essential purchase for anyone who has an interest in the history of the UK games industry, and has triggered something of a Bitmap renaissance in the Nintendo Life office, with the console ports of many of the studio's classics being dusted off and booted up once more.
The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is available to order direct from the publisher for £30.