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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

CaptainD fondly remembers... The Bitmap Brothers

The Bitmap Brothers were one of the most innovative software houses of the nineties (and late eighties) and produced some absolute classics. Well, when I say were, I don’t mean they’re not still going - but this is more a walk through memory lane for me than anything. (I won’t mention all of their games - just those that I’ve played.) If you remember those memorable days of the 16-bit machines, with Atari ST and Commodore Amiga owners at permanent loggerheads, arguing about which computer was better, and perennial enemies by default, then you may enjoy this blast from the past.

The first games I was aware of from the “Brothers” (who released their games under through Image works / Konami, but later set up their own distributing level called “Renegade”) were Xenon [1988] and Speedball (also 1988). The former was a shot-em-up whose claim to fame was that you controlled a craft that could change from a land vehicle to spaceship - though to be honest I was never that thrilled with this particular game. Speedball on the other hand was very enjoyable - one of the very few futuristic sports games to ever (and I mean ever) really grab the game playing public. Back then it seemed that more often than not sequels were better than the original games, which may be partly explained by the improvements in technology and the programmers have more experience of coding the mainstream machines. This certainly proved the case with Xenon 2: Megablast and Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe (despite the latter’s silly name) - released in 1989 and 1990 respectively, these were both timeless classics. Both took the basic gameplay of the first games, expanded them without losing playability, give them brilliant graphics and sound, got some brilliant music added to them, and generally made them both games you couldn’t stop playing.

It didn’t stop there, either. In 1991 the Bitmap Brothers gave us Gods, a platform game with superb graphics for the time, and a novel feature in the form of an adaptive difficulty level. This was the first game I ever remember having such a feature. If you were doing really badly, for instance, the game would drop a health icon on your head. At the time I loved this game, though strangely it has aged very badly (though I can’t really work out why). Hmm… haven’t used my ST emulator for a while…

The same year (I think) another platform game was released, Magic Pockets, which wins points for its sheer cheek. Your character has a special ability - he can.. .um… well, you see… he can create whirlwinds in his pocket. Quite how he does this is never really explained, and perhaps it’s best not to know. You can create different sized whirlwinds and use them to destroy or entrap the monsters that inhabit… wherever it is that you’re in. The level design was absolutely brilliant, and the gameplay fun and quirky - which it would have to be to hold my interest, as I’m not a he fan of platform games. Hold my interest it did, and I wasted quite a few hours of my misspelt yout on this game.

Even that wasn’t the end of it. Two years later, in 1993, they released The Chaos Engine (about the only game I ever played on the Amiga A1200). The Amiga version was, I have to admit reluctantly, far superior to the Atari STe version (though fair enough, the A1200 was a 32-bit machine). If I remember rightly this was the game that caused the Bitmap Brothers to fall out with Atari; the spiffy 32-bit Atari Falcon was heralded to be the saving grace of Atari, who have since been bought out at least twice, but they made a crucial mistake; they made the base model with only 1Mb of memory. The Bitmap Brothers said that it needed 4Mb, but Atari didn’t shift. (Look, I know it sounds ridiculously small and your cell phone probably has much more memory than that, but at the time it was a lot!) Thus the Falcon, devoid of titles due to this restriction, crashed and burned. Oh, and did I mention? The Chaos Engine was a great game, one of the best shoot-em-ups I’ve ever played. Though in my heart I still prefer Xenon 2...

There are signs of new products coming forth on the official website (below), though much of the recent effort seems to have gone into converting their existing games to work on handheld consoles. For more information, see

Screenshots from The Bitmap Brothers' Games:

Associated Blogs:

CaptainD's PC Gaming Blog
Jonathon Wisnoski - Game Reviewer and Commentator