A Gremlin in the Works (by Mark Hardisty) [Book Review]

Gremlin in the Works slip case

There are retro gaming books and there are retro gaming books.

Then there’s A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty; the Rolls Royce of the genre

Thanks in part to Kickstarter there have been quite a few recent retro gaming titles focussing on specific software houses or publishers: 2 on Ocean (from Chris Wilkins and Bitmap Books), 1 on US Gold (Chris Wilkins again) and Gary Penn’ Sensible Software retrospective, just to name a few. All are excellent titles, but future publications will need to up their game if they want to match Hardisty’s effort.

The publication just oozes quality. It comes in a cardboard slipcase that holds not one, but two hardback volumes. Volume one covers the early years of Gremlin up to 1990, whilst Volume 2 charts the later years, up to Gremlin’s sale to Infogrames in 1999 and beyond and covers some of the publishers lost or unreleased titles.

Gremlin in the works books

From the very first page, it’s clear that this is no cheap cash-in job. It’s officially endorsed by Gremlin co-founder Ian Stewart and has a lot of input from him and other influential members of the Gremlin team. It looks at some of the development houses whose games Gremlin published and includes the recollections of the in-house programmers from the very earliest recruits, through to those who joined Gremlin when it was already established. Hardisty has even gone to the trouble of tracking down people who only stayed with Gremlin for a very short time or developers who only ever wrote one game for them in order to ensure this is as complete a history as possible.

The length of the book (over 570 pages across the two volumes) means that you never feel short-changed in terms of the content. Different elements of Gremlin’s history are covered in appropriate depth so that you never feel that an issue is being skirted over, but neither do you get bored by too much detail.

The content is presented in a Q&A interview format which works well, making the text short, punchy and very readable. It means that Hardisty can pose a question and then intersperse it with recollections from several of the contributors at once. Hardisty’s input is suitably anonymous – he simply poses the questions and then lets the interviewees speak for themselves.

Of course, this is a celebration of Gremlin as a publisher, so the general tone is pretty upbeat. That said, you don’t’ get the impression that it is a whitewashing of history and (as far as you can tell) the interviewees are being pretty honest. There are several occasions when various personalities admit that they didn’t get on particularly well in the past, or where they criticise some of the Gremlin management’s decision making, or the way they occasionally treated their staff. This tension is perhaps particularly apparent when US Gold’s Geoff Brown (who acquired a majority stake in Gremlin in the late 80s) enters the conversation and it’s fairly clear that his ideas for Gremlin were pretty divisive. There are also occasions when people provide different accounts of the same events, or contradict what someone else has said, demonstrating how people can perceive or experience the same events in very different ways.

The text is nicely broken up by various archival images, including old photographs of the Gremlin offices and teams, contract letters to publish games and royalty statements (if I’d know how much money there was to be made in those days, I might have made a bit more of an effort to learn programming sooner than I did!). These really help to capture the spirit of the times and the extent to which the industry was making things up as it went along, as how it changed over the course of Gremlin’s lifespan.

Moreover, the book is the gift that keeps on giving. A Gremlin in the Works is still a live publication and as Hardisty secures more interviews or writes new content, he sends out periodic updates (appropriately called “an expansion disk”) to new online content.

You’ve probably gathered by now that I really, really, REALLY like this book. I am sitting here genuinely wracking my brains for something negative to say about the publication (just for the sake of balance, you understand). So, for once, I’m going to give up on the negative stuff and stick my neck out and say that A Gremlin in the Works is the best retro gaming book I have read by some distance. If you don’t enjoy it, then you probably owned a Dragon 32 or something.

A Gremlin in the Works is available from the Bitmap Books website for £24.99 which makes it incredible value for money. As I said at the start, from both a content and quality point perspective, it is far and away the best retro gaming book I have read and it’s going to be a hard act for future retrospectives on the 8 and 16 bit software houses to follow.

In summary? Best. Retro. Gaming. Book. Ever.

Seabase Delta (C64) Review

SeaBase Delta cassett

When I was growing up, I had a slightly younger friend whose parents had bought him an Amstrad. My, how we laughed at him! And if that wasn’t bad enough, he only had the green monitor version which made all his games look like they’d been covered in grass. Needless to say we spent most of the time round at my house playing on the mighty Commodore 64.

Just occasionally, though, I’d take pity on him and we’d go round to his house to play on the Green Machine. Happily, there was one such occasion when this proved to be A Very Good Decision.

Knowing that I was a massive fan of adventure games, he loaded up his latest acquisition – Seabase Delta – a budget game from Firebird’s £1.99 range. We started playing it together and becamse completely hooked. Several hours passed, much progress was made and eventually, it was time for me to go home. I found I’d enjoyed the game so much that the very next day, I went out and bought my own copy.

Seabase Delta put you in the role of reporter Ed Lions (ho! ho!), trapped on board a submarine that had been captured by enemy agents and towed to an enemy base. Your task is to escape by using the usual assortment of odd objects that tend to get left carelessly lying around in adventure games.

Seabase Delta was written using The Quill software. This often (unfairly) became a byword for a poor game, but without ever being anything astonishing, Seabase Delta shows what could be done with the tool when used properly.

Sure, the parser was a little basic and the graphics weren’t anything to write home about (though they were perfectly adequate and added something to the atmosphere). As with many text-based adventures there were times when the game’s limited vocabulary was slightly frustrating. Unless you hit on the exact word or phrase, you’d get the ubiquitous “I didn’t understand” message, so even if you knew what you had to do, actually find the right words to do it was a whole new issue. On the whole, though, the game’s relatively basic parser worked in its favour since you only had to remember a limited number of verbs for most of the puzzles.

The text also had a rather pleasing sense of humour. It wasn’t as zany as some (like Monkey Island) or a skit (like Delta 4’s offerings), but it could still make you smile. The text descriptions and computer responses were written with tongue very firmly in cheek and the deliberately bad puns appealed to me at the time (and, if I’m honest, still do!)

Where Seabase Delta really shone was in the game design. Even though the game was limited to a single location (the enemy base), there were lots of locations to discover, plenty of puzzles to solve and dozens of items to pick up and use. Crucially – at a time when walkthroughs were hard to find – puzzles were generally pretty logical and, with a little bit of lateral thinking, could be solved by most people. This helped to give the game a real sense of progression and motivated you to carry on. Every time you “outwitted” the game and solved a puzzle, it felt rewarding and opened up a new area of the game to explore.

I can only remember one puzzle I got totally stuck on. It was one of those frustrating puzzles common to old adventure games, where I knew what I needed to do, but not how to achieve it. One task required you to get hold of an egg which could be supplied by an unlikely, but handily available, chicken. However, the chicken was asleep and wouldn’t lay until it woke up. Could I wake up that damn chicken? I tried absolutely everything I could think of (up to, and including hitting it with every object in my inventory), but progress came to a grinding halt. For months, I checked the computer magazines on the shelves of John Menzies (remember them?) in the hopes that someone would have sent the solution in to one of their tips pages, but with no luck. Then, just when I had given up hope of ever waking that chicken, one magazine finally printed the answer. (For the record, you had to chew the bubble gum you had previously picked up, blow a bubble and then burst it to wake the chicken. Obviously.)

That one frustration aside, Seabase Delta proved to be a lot of fun. The constant progress made it rewarding whilst the relatively easy-to-solve puzzles (chickens aside) kept frustration levels to a minimum. I’ve always been a fan of adventure games (and the purist in me has a particularly soft spot for non-point and click games) and from the 8 bit days, this along with Delta 4’s The Boggit, is the one that I remember most fondly.

(Actually, I tell a lie: I was also rather fond of Melbourne House’s The Hobbit because a) I first read and fell in love with the book around this age and b) my 11 year old self never  tired being able to tell Thorin to do unspeakably rude things to Gandalf!)

Anyway, back to the game in hand. If you were being critical, you could argue that the game was too easy – seasoned adventurers could easily complete it in a couple of hours – but given that it only cost £1.99, it offered tremendous value for money. Like most adventures, once you’d finished it, it was extremely unlikely you’d ever replay it, but again; given what you’d paid, this wasn’t really an issue.

The only other negative was the really poor ending which was the adventure game equivalent of “Then they went home and had their tea.” After all the work you’d put into solving the puzzles, the ending was a massive anti-climax– surely the least you could have expected was a pretty picture of you escaping the base? Still, it shows how good the game was that even this could not spoil my sense of fondness for the title.

Hidden Gems: System 15000 (Commodore 64) review

system_15000 box

Around the mid-80s, hacking became cool. War Games was released in cinemas in 1983, followed by Activision’s imaginatively titled Hacker on home computers in 1985. Neatly sandwiched in between them is the lesser known System 15000, released by A.V.S in 1984.

Of these entries, System 15000 is one of the more realistic portrayals of hacking. It casts you in the role of a hacker (what else?) charged with retrieving £1.5 million dollars of a friend’s money which has been stolen by an unscrupulous company. To retrieve the money, you will need to hack into various computer systems to find it and restore it to its rightful owner. This is not going to be easy, since your only clue is a phone number and an entry code. Better crank that modem up.

When it comes to presentation, System 15000 is never going to win any awards. Taking its cue from the early online systems, graphics (bar a few logos and teletext style pages) are virtually non-existent, with most screens limited to basic menu-driven screens which give you information that might be helpful in your quest.

system_15000 main screen

Graphically, this is about as exciting as it gets!


Sound is similarly basic, limited to simple beeps imitating old telephone dialling tones and modem signals. It is not a game that is going to instantly appeal to most gamers; with its lack of presentation, obscure gameplay, absence of action and relative paucity of information on what you are meant to do, it does its best to put most people off.

Persevere, though, and you find one of the most gripping and atmospheric games I have ever encountered. From a gameplay genre perspective, it’s essentially a text-based adventure based around hacking. Hacking into various systems will give you little scraps of information (a phone number here, a password there, a company name). Your job is to piece all of these bits together and use them to hack into new systems, which will uncover further information and allow you to make progress. Like adventure games, there is a lot of trial and error (trying different passwords with different systems) and quite a bit of frustration. At times, progress can seem incredibly slow and then you will seem to make several breakthroughs all at once, making all that blundering around worthwhile.

Written down, this maybe still sounds pretty dull; in fact it is highly compelling. Each time you dial a new number and try out a password, there is a tense wait to see if you can get access. Even getting connected takes a while, and all this builds the tension. When you do get through, there is a real sense of euphoria, followed instantly by curiosity as you dig around to see what you can find. There is frustration as systems throw you out and occasional scares as the systems scan for intruders and threaten to disable you and report your activities to the police. The further you get into the game, the more determined you are to succeed, and the higher the stakes become. Not bad for something rendered almost entirely in text (and in the BBC and Spectrum versions, entirely in BASIC)

I don’t think I ever actually completed the whole game because I eventually came up against a brick wall and couldn’t get any further. However, whilst it lasted, I found it a compelling, tense and very different game and on returning to it recently, it had lost none of its appeal.

Perhaps because of its lack of graphics and sound, System 15000 still stands up well today. In today’s age of cybersecurity, the hacking theme resonates whilst the core gameplay is as compelling and tension-filled as ever. Like adventure games, it will appeal to those who like a more cerebral challenge to shooting endless waves of aliens.

If you fancy playing it, it’s well worth tracking down. Just one word of advice: write down everything you see. You never know when one of those seemingly random notes might just be the password to a system you are trying to hack…

David Pleasance: Commodore Kickstarter campaign

As you undoubtedly already know, Commodore found massive success in the 8 and 16 bit eras, before crashing spectacularly in the mid 1990s. As a massive Commodore fan (my earliest computers were a C64 and successive Amigas), I still remember the shock as I read the news of their financial problems and ultimate bankruptcy in the magazines of the day.

Anyone who read those magazines will be instantly familiar with the name and face of David Pleasance, then Managing Director of Commodore UK, and the man who fought (ultimately in vain) a campaign to keep the Commodore brand and machines alive (in the UK at least). Pleasance was one of the few people who actually tried to keep Commodore users informed during this tumultuous period and as such (in my eyes at least) has always gone down as one of the good guys of gaming.

As someone with a 12 year career at Commodore, Pleasance is well-placed to know what went on and he has recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to write a book supplying the inside story. Cunningly called Commodore: the Inside Story, it promises to be a fascinating insight into just what went wrong with one of the early industry’s most recognisable brands. If Pleasance delivers on his promise to be open and honest, name and shame and make sure that “THE TRUTH COMES OUT”, then this should make for an interesting read.

The good news is that the campaign is already fully funded with 26 days still left. It’s also backed by FusionRetro Books who have an excellent track record in producing high quality, interesting retro gaming titles. As such, the risk of this project not happening is pretty low.

So, if you want to find out the truth behind Commodore’s spectacular fall, then head on over to Kickstarter and back this title.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 by Gary Penn [Book Review]


Readers of a certain age will get a warm glow on hearing the name “Sensible Software”. From the late 80s-mid 90s, you could pretty much buy any Sensible game, secure in the knowledge that you would be buying a good quality (often slightly quirky) game.

Sensible’s bizarre budget take on Galaxians – Galax-i-Birds – was one of my more leftfield choices in my Top 10 C64 games post. Knocked out in just a couple of weeks by the sickeningly talented duo of “Jovial Jops” (Jon Hare) and “Cuddly Chrix” (Chris Yates), if this been their only release Sensible would be little more than a footnote to gaming history. However, they were also the brains behind some of the most recognisable titles of the 8 and 16 bit era, including Wizball, Parallax, Cannon Fodder and, of course, Sensible Soccer. This book, written by ex-Zzap!64 writer/editor and released by Read Only Memory books charts their rise and fall.

The book looks at each of Sensible’s major games (including those which were never completed or released) which gives the book a logical (Sensible?) chronological approach helping you to understand how the company developed. It’s mainly a two way interview cum conversation between Penn and Sensible co-founder Jon Hare. The two have clearly been good friends since the Zzap!/Sensible days, and this comes across in the text, but is actually both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, there is clearly a level of trust which results in a very open, honest and affable account. On the other hand, there were times when it felt a little bit too cosy – as though you were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two mates down at the pub. As such, the reader can sometimes feel a little excluded.

The Q&A format does make for a very readable book. It is never less than entertaining and frequently revealing and informative. Hare is an engaging interviewee and it’s interesting to read his thoughts on Sensible almost 20 years after it closed its doors (can it really be that long??!!). Whilst seasoned retro gamers will have heard some of the anecdotes before, plenty of new material is brought to light or certain aspects are covered in considerably more depth than in your average magazine article or webpage interview. I particularly enjoyed reading about the games that never were (particularly “Have a Nice Day” and of course, the infamous “Sex ‘n’ Drugs ‘n’ Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and seeing some screenshots from those games which I’d never seen before.

Speaking of screenshots, how good is the artwork in this book? With pages and pages of full colour, glossy photos taken from Sensible’s full catalogue of games (released and unreleased) together with various design documents that Hare has dug out of storage, it’s a real feast for the eyes. True, I’d have preferred the pictures to be interspersed throughout the text (they are all presented together at the end of the book); partly to break up the text, partly so that the screenshots sat with the games under discussion, but this is a personal thing. What’s not up for debate is how great those sprites still look, even in today’s world of photorealistic graphics.

Although Gary Penn was a hero of mine growing up (which of us didn’t want to be a reviewer for one of the Newsfield mags?), there were times when I found his style a little irritating. Sometimes his use of language felt a little too self-consciously “hip”, as if he’s still trying to get “down wiv da kids”, even if “da kids” in question are now mostly be in their mid-late 40s. In fairness, this could well be his normal style of speech (he was always an outspoken and enthusiastic individual), but there were times when it felt a little contrived. There’s also a fair amount of bad language, some of which felt unnecessary. I’m certainly no prude and I accept that this is probably a verbatim transcript of what was actually said, but there were times where the language could easily have been edited out, without having any impact on the overall sentiments expressed.

The book scores highly for being a warts and all account of the Sensible years. Hare is open about Sensible’s successes and his (and the company’s mistakes); and about the things that he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight and greater experience. This is no whitewashing of Sensible’s History, but an at times painfully honest appraisal of the company’s highs and lows.

Where it falls down a little is that, for the most part, it offers a single perspective: that of Jon Hare. True, there are probably around 20 other contributors with connections to Sensible (including collaborators, publishers and competitors such as Stoo Cambridge, Chis Chapman, Gary Bracey and the Bitmap Brothers,), but the majority of the content is provided by Hare. And for all his honest about the Sensible years, you have to recognise that other people’s recollections of those same events might be very different – either because they remember them differently, or because they experienced them at a different level. So, whilst this is certainly not a whitewashing of Sensible’s history, it is mostly a single perspective. In particular, the voice of Sensible Co-founder Chris Yates (who apparently isn’t interested in being involved in these things) is missing. As such, the book is perhaps more A history of Sensible Software, rather than THE history.

But don’t let that dissuade you from buying this book. It is a comprehensive, honest, entertaining and informative look at one of the most quintessentially (or “quintessensibly” as the book would have it) British software houses of the 80s and 90s. As a massive fan of Sensi’s output over the years, I found it a fascinating read and anyone with an interest in old games will too.

Sensible Software 1986-1999 is available from Read Only Memory Books, priced £25.

Commodore 64: A visual commpendium vol. 2 [Book Review]


One of Bitmap Books’ earlier titles was the pun-tastic Commodore 64: A Visual Commpendium. Funded via Kickstarter, it focussed on showcasing the graphics of the Mighty Breadbin and was, essentially, a picture book for adults.

Such was the success of the first volume that Bitmap recently returned to the title to produce a second volume. If the original was good, this one is better. Although it follows essentially the same format as the original, it makes a few small tweaks that address at least some of the reservations I had about volume 1.

This is a real feast for the eyes. The main focus is on the graphics: each two page spread covers a single game, and the vast majority of the space is devoted to a single screenshot. As we’ve come to expect from Bitmap Books products, this feels like a premium quality publication. Images look stunning and the colours just explode off the page. They renew your appreciation for how good C64 graphics could be (particularly as the machine got older and programmers learned how to squeeze every last byte from it) and remind you how talented the artists were to produce such good looking graphics within such massive technical constraints. Stick this on your table when friends come around and I guarantee they won’t be able to resist picking it up and flicking though it – even if they don’t have much of an interest in gaming.


With volume 2, the content has also been beefed up, so that it complements the gorgeous looking images and gives the book a bit more substance. One of my reservations about the original volume was that the text was very sparse – often just a single paragraph containing someone’s recollections of the game. Whilst this allowed the graphics to speak for themselves, it did mean that the book itself felt a little light and could easily be read from cover to cover in around 30 minutes.

Volume 2 strikes a much better balance between content and visuals. Although the format for most entries remains the same (double page spread with a brief paragraph of text), there are some longer pieces, including interviews with programmers and features on particular software companies. There’s a section on the Compunet demo scene that took off in the 80s, although personally, I found this the weakest section – mainly because I never had the chance to be involved with this, so wasn’t particularly interested in it, either at the time or now.


For the most part though, the interviews and features are both interesting and well-written. Sure, it was noticeable that many of the interviewees and the anecdotes they shared were very similar to those in Chris Wilkins’ Commodore 64 in Pixels, but I guess there are only a certain number of people willing to talk about their time in the industry and only so many anecdotes they remember. In that sense, this publication perhaps suffered a little in that I read it so close to Chris Wilkins’ book, but really that was my fault, rather than that of the book.

The other slight niggle was something I moaned about with volume 1. The selection of games included appears pretty random, with no explanation as to why they were selected. Are they particular favourites of the author(s)? Were they selected by a group of people and if so, what criteria were used to decide whether a particular game was included or not? Are they just the ones that didn’t fit into volume 1? I know this is a minor point, but I’m a bit geeky like that and I like to know this stuff! On the other hand, the authors should be praised for including a massive range of titles. Whilst many of the usual suspects appear, there are some more unusual, left-field choices, which gives the book a broader scope and can even introduce you to games you weren’t aware of.

The book is available in two versions from the Bitmap Books website. You can buy either buy both editions (i.e. this book and its predecessor) as a single 476 page hardback volume (for £29.99) or, if you already have the first book, you can buy volume 2 for £24.99, together with a card case that will house both books. Either offers great value for money for anyone who owned a C64 in the 80s or who has developed a love for it since.

If you have the original, buying volume 2 is a no-brainer. If you missed out on volume 1, don’t make the same mistake again! A beautifully designed, well-written love letter to Commodore’s best-loved machine, this belongs on the shelf of any self-respecting retrogamer.

Gaming Memories: Thanks Dad!

Christmas, they say, is a time for families. So, I’d like to respect this tradition by doing something that I do all too rarely – saying “thanks” and “sorry” to my dad.

It was my dad who kick started my life-long love of gaming by providing me with the hardware I needed to do it. Who knows, without his input, I might have gone down darker paths – like going outside and meeting real people 😉

I can clearly remember the day when he came home from town with a parcel clutched under his arms. It seemed that on his way in from work, he had called in at Rumbelows (remember them?!) and treated himself (and by extension us) to a Binatone TV Master that had been in the sale.

This lovable chunk of bright orange plastic was my gateway to gaming. It offered 4 games Tennis, Football, Squash and Squash (practice). The games themselves were pretty limited – essentially they were all a variant on Pong – but we didn’t care. We sat there dumbfounded that our TV could now play games and the trusty old Binatone was often wheeled out when we had friends and family round so that we could show off our gaming prowess. To me, the sight of that orange box coming down the stairs meant an evening of fun ahead.


Equally, it was my dad who introduced me to “proper” arcade games. We were on holiday in North Wales (our destination of choice throughout my childhood) and called into a chippy to get something to eat. Whilst we were waiting, my dad – not known for easily parting with his cash (he’s from Yorkshire) – put a whole TEN PENCE into the Space Invaders machine that was there. He took charge of the controls, my job was to shoot, and between us we managed to score a whopping 420 points (Twin Galaxies take note!).

From there, there was no stopping me – I was hooked on computer games. The following Christmas I got a Grandstand Invaders from Space game (see what they did with the title there to avoid any copyright issues?!); a Grandstand Munchman (more copyright dodging!) followed the next Christmas. By this time, a friend had acquired an Astro Wars machine, so we spent many hours playing these three titles. I was in gaming heaven, practising whenever I could and making sure all my high scores were written down in a special book and recorded for posterity.

The next Christmas I had absolutely set my heart on a Tomy Firefox game. Every chance I had, I would go into town and play on one of the demo models until I was hauled away by one of my parents. I HAD to have this.

That’s when my dad broke my heart. He sat me down and tried to convince me that rather than buying these machines (which, after all, he reasoned, only played one game) we should invest in one of these new-fangled computer thingies that were just coming onto the market. That way, I would be able to buy DIFFERENT games whenever I liked instead of getting one thing a year that played just one.

Looking back, this was clearly a very logical argument to make. Back then, I was impervious to logic. I was only about 12 and I had made it very clear that what I wanted was a Tomy Firefox. Clearly it was his job, as my parent, to make sure I got it. If he was unable to fulfil his parental obligations, then clearly the only course open to me was to sulk and continue to repeat in a whiny voice that I wanted a Tomy Firefox.

Christmas Day arrived and under the tree was a big box that clearly did not contain a Tomy Firefox. I opened my other presents, leaving that till last and, on unwrapping it, found that it contained a computer – but not just any old computer – a brand, spanking new, only just released in the UK, Commodore 64.

C64 boot screen

From the moment that blue Ready screen appeared, I was hooked. It offered so many possibilities and became a loyal and faithful companion for nearly 10 years, until I moved onto an Amiga in about 1991. I bought games, learned how to program (badly) in BASIC and generally became fluent with using a computer – an experience which has meant that, unlike some people of my generation (i.e. old), I’ve never been scared of technology

Looking back, I can see what a wonderful present that was. My mum and dad were not rich, they didn’t really know anything about computers, yet they had gone out there and bought me not just any old computer, but one of the best available on the market at the time. It wasn’t cheap and at a time when (with hindsight) I can see how tight money really was, they had bought me one of my best-ever presents. And I didn’t even have to resort to the begging that other kids did, or trying to convince them that a computer would help me with my schoolwork. They just had the foresight to get one, and somehow managed to scrape together the money.

I know this post probably makes me sound like a whinging ingrate, but obviously, it’s a little tongue in cheek and exaggerated for comic effect (honestly!). However, in all seriousness, I would like to say “sorry” to my dad for any minor sulking when he suggested we got a computer instead of the Tomy Firefox and also a massive “thank you”; firstly for introducing me to the world of games via the mighty Binatone and secondly – despite not really being a gadget or technology person – for having the foresight to buy a machine which genuinely changed my life.

I never did get that Tomy Firefox, though.