Hints & Tips for Videogame Pioneers by Andrew Hewson [Book Review]

Hints & Tips for Videogame pioneers

A while back, Hewson Consultants kindly sent me a review copy of their rather excellent audio CD, showcasing some of the superb tunes that accompanied their 80s 8 bit games. Whilst on their website doing a bit of background research for the review, I came across a reference to Andrew Hewson’s forthcoming book, Hints and Tips for Video Game Pioneers, recalling his early days in the nascent videogames industry. I paid my money and eagerly awaited the book’s publication…

… And waited

… And waited.

For perfectly understandable reasons (which Hewson explains in the book’s introduction), it took rather longer to publish the book than expected. Happily, I’m able to report it’s been worth the wait.

There have been a number of recent books looking at the development of the early software houses (Chris Wilkins and Roger Kean’s books on US Gold and Ocean spring to mind). However, the Hewson title has a distinct advantage: we are getting the information straight from the horse’s mouth (with apologies to Andrew Hewson who, I am sure, has no equine characteristics!) Whereas other books are composite histories based on interviews with many different people this is the recollections of one man – the founder of Hewson Consultants.

This makes for a fascinating read, as you really get the sense of what it was like to be involved in those early, heady days of the industry, and how things changed (and became more difficult) as the decade progressed. The sense of fun gradually giving way to a more professional, business-like approach, which stifled creativity (Discuss). Hewson doesn’t just focus on the games that his companies produced, but looks at the development of the whole company, its ethos, expansion, relationship with the computer press, Hewson’s rise to prominence and gradual decline. Of course, there is plenty of information on their most famous titles, together with quotes and insights from some of the developers behind them, but the majority of the book is Hewson’s reflections on his time in the industry.

Hewson is very honest in his account and sometimes fairly forthright in his views (his views on software piracy are, understandably, pretty strong). He is open about the highs and lows of running Hewson Consultants, outlining where he made good decisions and where he made mistakes, as well as acknowledging the role that luck (as well as a lot of hard work) played in Hewson’s success.

Hewson himself has a scientific background and this comes across in the book and helps set it apart from other, similar titles. The focus is not just on the aesthetics of the games or the PR side of the industry (although both feature). He also understands and considers the problems that faced coders (beyond the obvious “early machines were limited in what they could do”) and the more technical aspects of the industry. In my (all too rare) idle moments, I’ve often wondered how a professional tape duplication plant worked. Now, thanks to this book, I know (at least in a general sense).

The text is well written with an engaging and easy-to-read style. Where there are occasional forays into more technical areas, they remain readable for the layman. The book is mostly arranged chronologically, giving it a clear structure, whilst individual chapters are broken down into various shorter sub-sections. This makes it easy to pick up and read when you have a few spare moments or it can be read from cover to cover in a few hours.

Turning to the downsides, there are a couple that stand out.

First up, images: or rather, the lack of them. For a book that is about a highly visual medium, it’s a real disappointment that the book is more or less image free, with no screenshots of any of Hewson’s games. In fairness, Hewson addresses this point in the introduction, arguing that the company produced so many games that selecting just some would have been an impossible task. Images (particularly full colour ones) also drive up production costs, making the final book more expensive. Even so, a couple of images per chapter would have brightened up the book a little and demonstrated how Hewson’s games evolved over time.

The second issue is that the book rather fizzles out towards the end. The section on the Hewson Consultant days feels very thorough, giving a rich, detailed account of the company’s highs and lows. By contrast, the section on 21st Century Entertainment (Hewson’s successor) feels a little superficial and lightweight. It feels like an add-on – something the author had to include because it was part of his experience in the industry, but that his heart was not really in it. Again, in fairness, Hewson acknowledges this in the introduction, noting that he found this part the hardest to write – partly because of personal circumstances during the writing process, but also because he could never (even at the time it was operating) muster the same enthusiasm for 21st Century Entertainment as for Hewson. This clearly comes through in the text, but it does leave the final few chapters with a slight sense of anti-climax.

So, bearing in mind those issues, would I recommend you buy it? Absolutely! Whilst images would have been nice, they are not a deal breaker (we can always look them up on the internet). Similarly, if I’m honest, I was more interested in the Hewson Consultant side of the story anyway, so the greater focus on that was fine by me. Hints and Tips for Videogame Pioneers is a fascinating read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in retro gaming or the early years of the industry.

The book is available from the Hewson Consultants website for around £15 + delivery(paperback) or as a special hardback edition for £24.99 + deliv. A Kindle edition is also available for around £7.


Rainbow Islands (Amiga) review

rainbow islands box art

As I’ve pointed out previously, I loved Bubble Bobble, especially on the Commodore 64. However because in those days I wasn’t well-versed in gaming lore, I had no idea that a sequel – in the form of Rainbow Islands – existed. Needless to say, as soon as I found out, I raced out and buy it for my Amiga.

This turned out to be a good call, although my initial impression was one of disappointment. There had been so many changes to the Bubble Bobble format! The heroes – Bub and Bob – were no longer cute dinosaurs and didn’t blow bubbles, whilst the gameplay was much closer to a traditional platform game.

Then I started to play the actual game and instantly forgot my concerns and learned to love Rainbow Islands in its own right. Yes, in one sense, 100 more Bubble Bobble style levels would have been fun, but would the game still be remembered today? Probably not. Even if it was, it would probably be remembered more as a quick cash-in on a popular title, than a brilliant game. Taking the sequel in a completely different (but clearly related) direction was a masterstroke that ensured both titles are still fondly remembered.

The first thing that grabs your attention is the graphics. Sure, Bub and Bob look like they are victims of the current obesity crisis and guzzled a few too many turkey twizzlers, but with their rounded features and rosy cheeks, they are every bit as cute in human form as they were when dinosaurs. Enemies are wonderfully designed and imaginative; just as cute as Bub and Bob and match the theme of the islands they inhabit. Add to this the riotous use of colour and you have a title that is a visual delight.

Rainbow Islands screen

Nor does the game just impress the eyes; it sounds great too. A lovely quirky, plinky-plonky version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” loops continuously during levels. This might sound annoying, but the tune quickly gets into your head and I defy anyone to play this game and not be singing along to it within five minutes. Indeed, even though I haven’t played the game for some time now, I’m whistling the song even as I type. Along with some appropriately cutesy sound effects, it all makes for a fun and quirky atmosphere.

Happily, the game itself (programmed by industry veterans Graftgold) delivers on the gameplay front. As with everything else, this had changed significantly from its predecessor. This time around, Bub and Bob have to negotiate their way to the top of each level, avoiding (or trapping) enemies, and reaching their goal before the water levels rise and drown you. To help Bub and Bob reach otherwise inaccessible platforms, they can create rainbows, which can be used as ladders. Any enemies caught under a rainbow and stomped on are killed and offer up a bonus of some sort as a reward. Meanwhile, the addition of a few boss battles helps to keep things fresh and stop the game from becoming too repetitive.

What really sets Rainbow Islands apart as a worthy sequel is the level design which is simply sublime. Early levels are fairly easy and teach you the mechanics of playing. Later levels get seriously tough and require split second timing and sometimes a large dose of luck to get off with lives intact. Crucially, the game is scrupulously fair. Many enemies have set patterns to the way they move, so you can observe them (keeping an eye on the rising water, of course) and make your move at the safest time. If you die, it was because you mis-time your move, not because the game is cheating.

Similarly, the use of bonuses for killing monsters introduces a brilliant risk and reward mechanism. It is possible (though tricky) to simply race your way to the top, avoiding all the enemies, However, if you want to score lots of points or gain extra helpful powers, you need to kill the monsters to release the bonuses. The temptation is to try and trap all the enemies to get all the bonuses, but this can get you into trouble – either by tempting you to go after a bonus item that is close to an enemy, or slowing your progress upwards so that you risk getting caught by the rising waters. As the levels go tougher, so the bonus items become more essential – but the risks associated with going after them also increase.

All these elements come together brilliantly to produce a game that is great to look at, nice to listen to and addictive and frustrating in equal measure. Even today its bright colourful graphics, solid sound and quirky gameplay stand up well.

Bub and Bob – I salute you. Stars of two very different, but in their own way exceptional games (and that’s before we consider their third, home computer only outing, Parasol Stars.)