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.

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.

The Story of US Gold by Chris Wilkins and Roger M Kean [Book Review]

US Gold book

To anyone of a certain age, the name US Gold will trigger any number of memories – from the gold medallion badge and US National Anthem that played whilst games were loading to the games themselves that somehow seemed just a little different and more exotic than the fare offered by most British developers. Chis Wilkins and Roger Kean clearly share this fascination and have produced this Kickstarter-funded history of the Birmingham giant.

Like the authors’ previous efforts (a history of Ocean Software), the book is split into two sections. The first is an in-depth look at the company, seen through the eyes of founder Geoff Brown and other key personnel. The second contains recollections from programmers and developers associated with US Gold over the years.

I have to start off by saying that I didn’t enjoy the US Gold book as much as its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong: it remains a very enjoyable read, but I didn’t quite get the same buzz from reading about US Gold as I did from the Ocean volume. Perhaps the Ocean book was so good that my expectations were too high, but whatever the cause I finished the book with a mild, if non-specific feeling of disappointment.

Still, let’s not dwell on the negatives too early, since it’s still a great read. The history section is particularly strong, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into researching and tracing the company from its humble origins through to its dominant market position. The chronological narrative is the result of many interviews and discussions with some of the key figures behind the company and is packed full of anecdotes and personal insights into how US Gold operated.

Many of the contributors are also refreshingly honest. It’s not quite a warts and all account, but neither is it an uncritical acclamation of everything US Gold did. Interviewees are candid about some of the sharp business practices US Gold pursued they are quite willing to tell stories that don’t always cast themselves or the company in the best light. There are honest accounts of some of the company’s more notorious ventures (particularly the debacle surrounding the release of World Cup Carnival in 1986). Similarly the authors are not afraid to present different accounts of the same events based on the conflicting recollections of their interviewees, which makes for an interesting read.

You do sometimes feel that you are only getting part of the story and that input is missing from several key players. In particular, Geoff Brown’s ex-wife Ann is referenced many times, but is not interviewed, whilst PR guru Danielle Woodyatt receives only brief attention, despite playing a critical role in managing US Gold’s relationship with the influential Newsfield publications, Crash and Zzap!64. I fully understand that the authors can only interview people they can track down and who agree to talk to them, but it does sometimes feel as though you are only getting part of the story.

There are a few occasions when opinions can also tip over into mild (though never anything more) unpleasantness. There are several at Walsall based Elite Software, not all of which come across as tongue in cheek and some of which seem slightly snobby and dismissive. Similarly, there were a few observations which, whilst commendably honest, might have been better kept private.

Where the book is weaker is in the seeming lack of passion for the games themselves from the interviewees either at the time or retrospectively. It’s fairly clear that for many people at US Gold games were nothing more than a product. The Ocean book dripped passion –the contributors wanted to make the best game they could and still look back on their creations with fondness. For US Gold, it was about making money. This is shown in the increased amount of business and financial information contained in the book – something that was of less interest to me personally.

The two parts of the book also didn’t quite feel as cohesive. Whilst the programmer/developer accounts are interesting enough, many of them deal only briefly or tangentially with US Gold itself and are more reflections on the 80s software scene generally, rather than US Gold specifically. This probably reflects the fact that US Gold (for much of its lifespan) didn’t employ programmers in the same way that Ocean did, relying instead on outsourcing work. As such, you don’t get the same insight from them into working at US Gold.

Visually, the book is a delight. Liberally scattered with a range of material from screenshots of US Gold games to iconic cover art and adverts; from photographs of US Gold buildings (both then and now) to pictures of interviewees (again, then and now), it looks great. Geoff Brown and his colleagues have clearly kept a lot of US Gold related memorabilia, and this is used to good effect to illustrate the book, with barely a page that doesn’t contain at least one image.

So, allowing for the fact that I didn’t think this volume was quite as good as the Ocean history, would I still recommend it? Absolutely! The weaknesses I’ve mentioned are all minor and nowhere near big enough to undermine what is remains a fascinating, well-written and well-designed volume.

If you were a gamer in the 1980s or 1990s, then US Gold titles would have been a big part of your life. This nostalgic look back keeps the right balance between honesty and nostalgia and is a must-read for any gamer in their late 30s/early 40s.

Available from Fusion Retro Books for £25