The 1990s, as told through major British video game releases
We’ve already looked at the development of the UK games industry before the establishment of Ukie in 1989 - so it’s time to play some Spice Girls and put on some tattoo chokers as we cast our eyes back and look at the 90s through major British releases.
Miami Chase (1990)
There’s a lot of talk about how video game narrative has evolved significantly over the past two decades. But if there’s anything that 1990 C64 game Miami Chase teaches us, it’s that the set up for early video games could be just as epic as the games that succeeded them.
You play Don Ferrari. You’re a ‘tough cop’ who has been set the task of boosting the Mayor’s re-election chances by clearing the streets of crime by any means necessary in just 48 hours.
Sound epic, right? In practice, Miami Chase didn’t quite live up to its Scorsese style scene setting. Most of the game centres around wiping out seven crime lords (all who drive red cars) without being pulled over by the police for driving erratically or harming civilians.
However, Miami Chase is important to the development of the British video games industry for one major reason. Not only was it published by Codemasters, it was developed by Team17 who would go on to make Worms, publish games like Overcooked and become one of the biggest employers in the country.
If you ever find yourself by where DMA Design’s old offices once stood in Dundee, you may come across a group of bronze lemmings climbing up a pillar. The statue was unveiled in 2013 to celebrate one of Dundee’s best cultural exports: the Lemmings series.
Before Grand Theft Auto, DMA Design published the first Lemmings in 1991. Lemmings stemmed from a test, throwaway animation in 1989 of a tiny creature moving endlessly. One studio member, Russell Kay, saw the animated pre-lemming and exclaimed: “There's a game in that!” And he turned out to be more than right on that count.
The game, which challenged players to keep dozens of the aforementioned sprites alive through a mixture of ingenious planning and handy Lemming powers, captivated players and critics on release.
Amiga Computing called Lemmings “absolutely brilliant”. And reviews like that helped springboard the game to success, with the game selling an enormously impressive 55,000 copies on the very first day.
But the legacy of Lemmings goes beyond sales. It has been credited as one of the first real-time strategy games (RTS) and it was noted as an inspiration for Blizzard’s first Warcraft game by a developer. And if that wasn’t enough, it was even referenced in Terry Pratchett’s novel Interesting Times too.
Championship Manager (1992)
Sports Interactive’s Football Manager is considered ‘the’ football management simulation. The most recent version of the game features over 800,000 real players in game, an unapologetically deep recreation of the management experience (from negotiating contracts to finding a course through press conferences) and enough tactical depth to allow avid players to make their way into the world of football.
But it wasn’t always like this. The franchise started life back in 1992 as Championship Manager. And its fair to say it didn’t start off with quite as much detail.
Written in BASIC, featuring only four leagues and lacking real player names, Champ Man didn’t quite hit the heady heights of its now established predecessor.
And if that wasn’t challenging enough, EA turned down an opportunity to publish Championship Manager after the Collyer’s accidentally sent through a copy of the game with a virus on it.
Nevertheless, despite the set backs, the brothers ploughed ahead and built the Championship Manager series up over the course of the following decade. While the first Champ Man may not have quite rocked the football management world, the name would become synonymous with management excellent by the time of its legendary 01/02 edition.
Sports Interactive then took the series to the next level when it split from Eidos in the mid 2000s, spawning the now ubiquitous Football Manager.
Bullfrog were known for many of the biggest hits to emerge from the British industry, including Populous and Theme Park. But few of their games had as much style as Syndicate.
Set in 2096, the world of Syndicate sees multinational corporations face off against one another in a series of aggressive battles. Rather than wars over territories between nations, Syndicate featured hostile takeovers between corporations, fought by cyborg corporate agents commandeered by the player.
Syndicate’s fusion of style and substantive strategic gameplay has ensured that it remains held in high regard even today.
As recently as 2011, it was named one of the greatest video games of all time by the Daily Telegraph. And it’s easy to see why, when much of the game still holds up aesthetically and mechanically decades later.
However, fans are still waiting for a true reboot of the series. While games like UFO have been successfully updated through the refreshed XCOM series, Syndicates brand took a blow when Starbreeze’s 2012 FPS reboot was critically panned.
Rise of the Robots (1994)
1994 marks the birth of an icon and a landmark in game history as Sony released its PlayStation. The home console pioneered 3D graphics at home. As we’ve previously seen, it led to a demand for more sophisticated tech skills as games became increasingly more complex. And sometimes, those technological challenges resulted in games like Rise of the Robots being released.
Dropped at the height of the first ever fighting game craze, Rise of the Robots was pitched as way ahead of its competition. This daring game was purposely developed to have the most advanced artificial intelligence at the time. The graphics were so detailed that each character took two months to render and had 100 frames of animation. The studio also managed to get the legendary Queen guitarist Brian May on board to compose the soundtrack, rounding off its multi-million pound marketing campaign which also - weirdly included a tie in novel clocking in at an impressive 85,000 words.
Unfortunately, the marketing drive did appear to be compensating for Rise of the Robots notable lack of quality. It was a critical failure - dubbed the “worst fighting game… ever seen”, “one of the biggest disappointments of the year” and “one of the most unappealing fighting games”.
But on the plus side, at least the Rise of the Robots novels must be a highly sought after collector’s item by now.
Towards the end of 1995, the apparent fascination of the Britsh video game industry with futuristic settings showed no sign of abating with the release of WipeOut.
The futuristic racer, which was created by Liverpool’s Psygnosis, left a long lasting mark with its strong aesthetic. Featuring a cracking electronica soundtrack which included the likes of the Chemical Brothers, Wipeout (stylised as wipE’out), it pulled leading bands from the 1990s and made them the backing track to hover car racing in 2052.
Appealing to a ‘fashionable, club-going, music buying audience’, ‘Wipeout’ successfully traversed from being an arguably geeky past time into being officially ultra-cool. It’s appeal to a mainstream adult audience was so great that it even appeared in the movie ‘Hackers’ in a scene showing Angelina Jolie playing against Johnny Lee Miller in a night club.
It’s marketing campaign hammered home the point further. One poster starred radio presenter Sara Cox - but it drew controversy by posing her with blood running form her nose and onto her shirt with the tagline ‘ wipE’out - a dangerous game’, implying a drug overdose. The connections to drugs were further speculated on with some suggested that the capital ‘E’ in wipE’out stood for ecstasy.
Despite the controversy, Wipeout went on to be PlayStation’s best-selling launch title in Europe and shot to number one in US charts.
Tomb Raider (1996)
1996 saw the release of ‘Tomb Raider’, and the start of a massive cultural and financial phenomenon that still continues 23 years later.
We have spoken a lot about Tomb Raider on this blog - so we won’t go into it again here. But if you did want to read a lot about one of the most memorable British video games of all time (and one of its most memorable characters) you can read about how it is one of the best selling games of the last 30 years, how Lara Croft came to be and the story behind her recent international reboot.
The release of GoldenEye was a milestone in video game history. Whilst features such as a zoomable sniper rifle lens may be common place today, it was GoldenEye that pioneered them. On top of that, it’s meticulous attention to detail is worth noting - featuring for example transparent glass, lingering smoke, and seamless soundtrack transitions. It changed the game for FPSes.
As time has passed, it has only served to solidify the impact of GoldenEye 007 on FPS as a genre, but also the entirety of games. In retrospective comments, journalists have noted how it “was the first game to really put you into a 3D environment with realistic situations… enemies could see and hear you, they could also hit alarms… [you could] shoot locks off doors, destroy parts of environments… the industry at its best”
It was a landmark video game and Rare’s FPS frequently tops ‘best of’ lists today. This is despite the fact that the game actually released two years after the film.
Colin McRae Rally and BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Awards (1998)
1998 saw the arrival of the Colin McRae Rally series on the Playstation. We’ve mentioned the game, published and developed by Codemasters before on this blog here.
But for those of you who missed out on the fun, Colin McRae Rally turned out to be a bit of a landmark title for the British industry. The title - which fused the spirit of games like Sega Rally with licensed vehicles and drivers from the rally world - became one of the Best Selling British video games of all time, giving the Leamington Spa based Codemasters a huge boost at a time when the industry was consolidating as a result of increasing development costs and complexity.
There was another big milestone this year too, though. 1998 was also the year of the first esteemed BAFTA Interactive Entertainment Awards. The winner of the first coveted Game of the Year award was Goldeneye 007, with it’s development studio Rare winning Best UK Developer.
Since then, the BAFTA Game awards have gone on to become an established part of the industry calendar.
They’ve recently started celebrating the Best British Games, while also making a much greater effort to celebrate the craft of making video games with new award categories introduced in the past decade.
We started our decade round up with a game about tough cops driving fast. So it only seems fair to tie it off with another game that put you behind the wheel of car.
DRIVER was the fruits of the efforts of Reflections Interactive. Players slipped into the shoes of John Tanner, a former NYPD officer and former racing driver, as he sought to blow open the Castaldi crime syndicate across the US.
Taking players into some of the first truly open world 3D environment, DRIVER quickly became a critical and commercial darling. Awarded a number of top gongs from publications like GameSpot and IGN for its PlayStation release, the game also hit the spot on Game Boy Colour - with the gameplay being described as a “smoothness personified” by Frank Provo.
DRIVER went on to sell over 600,000 copies on PlayStation in the UK alone. It spawned a number of sequels, with varying levels of success. And Reflections - the creator of the game - went on to eventually become a part of Ubisoft’s global development empire.