One of the issues in the 8 and 16 bit eras was the sheer quantity of games being released. Most publishers shovelled out as many games as they could so whilst there were some gems there was also an awful lot of dross. Thankfully, there were a few publishers who took a more selective approach to releases and whose name on the box acted as a reasonable guarantee of quality: Hewson was one; Thalamus another and they were joined by Cinemaware.
Cinemaware first came to prominence (at least as far as I was concerned) as one of the early 16 bit publishers who really “got” the additional power of the new machines. Their games were characterised by detailed graphics and stunning sound. I can still remember the first time I saw Amiga screenshots for Defender of the Crown. Used as I was to the small, blocky graphics of the Commodore 64, the large detailed backgrounds and incredible use of colour blew me away.
As their name suggests, Cinemaware were one of the first companies to take a genuine cinematic approach to games. They believed that excellent presentation was important to the game and cut-scenes were regular feature of their titles. If you picked up a Cinemaware title, you knew it was going to look and sound fantastic.
As I’ve mentioned many times before though, impressive presentation can only get you so far. Cinemaware recognised this and for them, proper story-telling was as important as presentation. Their games had a real sense of narrative and progression which automatically made you feel more engaged. You might start by being impressed by the presentation, but the strong story and characterisation (for the time) soon drew you in. Perhaps it was a reflection of the fact that gamers who had grown up with the 8 bit machines were older and wanted something with a bit more substance. This was exactly what Cinemaware titles offered – games that looked good and were fun to play, but which had some extra depth.
Above all, they understood that it was possible to cross genres and combine different elements whilst still creating a coherent game. Most of the Cinemaware titles combined action sequences (shooting a zeppelin in Rocket Ranger), strategy (building alliances in Defender of the Crown) and simple RPG elements (assigning points to different skills in Wings). The danger with such games is that they end up being neither one thing nor the other – not “arcadey” enough for action lovers, not strategic enough for strategy fans. Getting that balance right is really tricky, but most of the time Cinemaware managed it.
On the face of it, their games should not have worked. Most of the titles boiled down to little more than a series of short mini games (typically 3 or 4), endlessly repeated with minor variations, increasing difficulty and linked together by the narrative. The reason why they did work was because of that narrative: it drove that sense of a coherent story, making the gamer feel like there was a point playing the same sub-game over and over. Equally crucially, the sub-games were fun in their own right. It didn’t matter how many times I attacked a zeppelin in Rocket Ranger, it remained enjoyable.
I wasn’t in any way a Cinemaware fanboy – of their whole output, I think I only ever played Defender of the Crown, It Came from the Desert and Rocket Ranger. However, I always had a sense of anticipation when a new Cinemaware game was imminent. Even if I didn’t have the money to buy it, I read about in the gaming press of the time and slobbered over the gorgeous looking screenshots.
What’s brought this Cinemaware retrospective about is that I recently downloaded the remastered version of Wings from GOG. This was one of the Cinemaware titles I never played on the Amiga and without wishing to spoil my upcoming review, it’s great! Playing Wings Remastered brought back many happy memories of the other Cinemaware titles and reminded me of just how good a company they were. They deserve recognition as one of the few companies who valued quality over quantity and it’s good to see the brand make a comeback. I hope we can look forward to more of their remastered games in the future.