What is it about Sheffield and great computer games? The South Yorkshire city has been the home of some classic publishers. Today on Commodore Format we’ve got part one of […]
What is it about Sheffield and great computer games? The South Yorkshire city has been the home of some classic publishers. Today on Commodore Format we’ve got part one of a series exploring the work of Hi-Tec, whose story is often forgotten. Shining briefly but brightly between 1989 and 1992, they shook up the budget scene by bringing famous cartoon characters to the 8 and 16-bit machines at pocket money prices. Here’s where it began…
In late 1970s Sheffield, former RAF engineer Dave Palmer set up Palmer Acoustics Limited. It supplied audio equipment and knowledge to radio, television and movie studios. PAL was a success, but even when the business signed contracts with the biggest audio production manufacturers in the world he was thinking about something new.
Dave had been seduced by the emergence of the home computer and wanted in. At first he started to import computer components, but he was far more interested in what the machines could do rather than the nuts and bolts. Fortuitously, some of his ex-wife’s family had formed Alligata Software in the same city around this point. Dave teamed up with the fledgling publisher, handling everything from recruiting coders from local schools to PR and even helping to duplicate the tapes.
In 1986, Dave formed Alternative Software with Roger Hulley where he became involved with the sales side of things. By the late ’80s, he knew enough about the industry to go it alone. PAL Developments briefly produced stuff like Bomb Fusion for Virgin Mastertronic, but this wasn’t enough. Dave was still making things for other people. That’s why in 1989 he formed Hi-Tec, a publisher to exclusively put out PAL’s games at pocket money prices.
At first, the code from Sheffield’s newest publisher wasn’t that distinguishable from fellow budgeteers Codemasters or county rivals Alternative. There was Cricket Captain, a standard sports management sim’ you’ve seen a ton of times before. And then came Future Bike Simulator, which even sounded like a Codemasters title. So far, so average. But then came the defining moment for the new business.
A world away from South Yorkshire in California, cartoon legends Hanna-Barbera were under new leadership and looking to license their IP to the next generation of gamers. The talk was all about Nintendo and Sega. With the big publishers distracted by bidding for cartridge rights, Dave went under the radar. Incredibly, the Sheffield newbies struck a deal to exclusively produce games on tape, disk and CD for the UK and Australasian markets. Hi-Tec had a free reign to make Yogi, Scooby Doo, Top Cat and other massive names on the C64, Speccy, Amstrad, Amiga and ST. Another deal was reached for the Looney Tunes rights (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc). It was a monumental coup.
The Sheffield newbies managed to strike a deal to exclusively produce Hanna Barbera games on tape, disk and CD for the UK and Australasian markets. It was a monumental coup
Hi-Tec’s team was small. Eventually, freelancers and new employees would soak up the sheer volume of work across formats, but at its core were Dave Thompson (Spectrum), Gary Antcliffe (C64 and Amiga) and artist Richard Morton. The group looked at hours of cartoons and based their game proposals on existing stories; that way, they figured, they couldn’t go off brand. Fan favourite Yogi’s Great Escape, for example, is based on the movie of the same name. But just to be sure, Hanna-Barbera’s UK rep Les Skinner (himself an illustrator on stuff like the Muppets books) visited Yorkshire once in a while to see what was going down. There were frustrations. California demanded some colour schemes that weren’t possible on certain machines, for example, and under a rule that stands to this day in the Hanna-Barbera universe, in no circumstances could a character ever “die” (that’s why, in Yogi’s Great Escape, he only ever sits down and looks a bit sad if you get hit). But the marriage worked, with the first games – Quick Draw McGraw and Hong Kong Phooey – surfacing for £2.99 on cassette (£6.99 on 16-bit disk) in 1990.
After that, the games rained down: two Yogi Bear games (Yogi’s Great Escape and Yogi Bear and Friends in the Greed Monster), Wacky Races, Scooby and Scrappy Doo, Top Cat: Beverly Hill’s Cats, Ruff and Reddy and more. Eventually, the price rose to £3.99 which Dave said justified spending another few weeks on each game; then, a “premium” range (six quid a throw on 8-bit, a bit more on Amiga/ST) took in larger adventures featuring The Jetsons and Potsworth and Company.
The games all shared bold, beautiful graphics. They were almost always platform or flick-screen adventure based. They had clear objectives that could be achieved through pattern learning. This combination and the dirt cheap price was wildly appealing to a young audience. Every Hi-Tec game charted well, even when the games weren’t widely reviewed in the press.
BEAUTIFUL GRAPHICS, CLEAR OBJECTIVES AND THE DIRT CHEAP PRICE WERE WILDLY APPEALING TO A YOUNG AUDIENCE. EVERY GAME CHARTED WELL, EVEN THE ONES NOT WIDELY REVIEWED
The success meant that the small team were able to experiment a bit with their own games, often based on bits of code they’d been mucking about with. Original, non-licensed software like Commando-in-a-tank Blazing Thunder was grand but platformer Turbo The Tortoise was better: the gentle platform action perfectly encapsulates the good nature and simplicity of the ’90s budget scene (it was picked up by Codemasters after Hi-Tec’s demise in 1992 – Ed).
Ah, yes. The demise. Every story has its end, and this is Hi-Tec’s. Picking up the regional rights to the microcomputers was smart, but also a very short term bet in the early ’90s. As the SNES and Megadrive and even talk of a console from Sony became the focus of the industry, sales of computer stuff dropped off and couldn’t justify further investment in cartoon licenses. In early 1992 Dave Palmer told Computer Trade Weekly that in spite of the success of its Premier Range they were heavily dependent on their banker’s support, which couldn’t see a future for games on ageing machines. Combined with the loss of staff to Core Design, the plug was pulled around the same time that ZZAP! 64 published its famously salivating Daffy Duck review (more on that in part three – Ed).
PAL Developments carried on, becoming a licensed developer for Nintendo. It released titles like Dennis the Menace and EarthWorm Jim for the handheld formats and then became involved with the Wii. But it’s undoubtedly Hi-Tec for which Dave has founded a fond legacy: recognisable characters, simple gameplay and affordable too. If you can’t find fun here, you’re probably in the wrong hobby. Here are five of our cartoon favourites – next time, we’ll look at five of their originals. And in part three, we’ll uncover some unreleased classics.
1. YOGI’S GREAT ESCAPE
An undoubted reader fave, this 1990 platformer is directly based on Neal Barbera’s 1987 television movie. The park in which Yogi and irritant sidekick Boo-Boo live is being closed down and all the animals are to be shipped off to a zoo. The bears aren’t having it, so they plot a runner to a new life in the city.
The left-to-right platform action mirrors scenes in the film precisely: first there’s Jellystone Park, then a forest, the Wild West setting, a haunted marsh, a fun fair, and New York (where, just like the film, you reach your new home via hot air balloon). The enemies are all themed to the level, with park rangers, ghosts, birds of prey and pieces of fairground ride (!). As well as avoiding them, you can explore the levels deeper to find collectibles like pic-a-nic baskets for extra points and precious lives.
Yogi came out the month before Commodore Format issue one, but a review sneaked in late to ZZAP! issue 64. The mag thought it was really playable for a budget title, if a little repetitive. Thirty years later, the unforgiving collision detection and zero margin for error spoil the fun by modern standards, and the final level in the balloon is brutal. But judged by the time and not hindsight, and bearing (oh, get out – Ed) in mind the three quid price tag, it’s a lovely little game. Just remember to stick on a trainer!
2. TOP CAT IN BEVERLY HILL’S CATS
TC’s Commodore outing follows the 1988 film plot to get things going. His buddy Benny inherits a fortune after the initial heir, Amy, goes missing. He sets off to try and find her, but hot on his cat tail is evil Butler Snerdly. He’s next in line for the dosh and has a plan to wipe out Benny.
Which sets up the action for a flick screen maze and puzzle adventure perfectly, eh. The game has a slightly weird overhead view, with an angle that doesn’t really respect perspective. That can make it hard to pick up the various objects which open doors or defeat the Butler’s helpers. The single life (boosted with a milk fueled energy bar, granted) can also make things tough. But there is fun to be had with making a map, first of TC’s native Californian alleys and then of a mansion on the hunt for Amy. If getting out the graph paper and experimenting with objects is your thing, there is a nice hour or so to get your teeth into here. It makes the list just ‘cos it’s a bit different.
3. POTSWORTH AND COMPANY
If there’s a constant in the reviews of Potsworth and Company, it’s that nobody’s heard of Potsworth and Company. No adults, anyway. In fact, the joint British/US cartoon about four kids and their dog Potsworth who meet up in their dreams was huge during its short run in late 1990. It was the second most popular show with British children that year, just pipped to the top by Aussie soap Neighbours.
Potsworth is buzzing full of ideas for a game, and this Premium release (seven quid, rather than four) is bigger and swisher than other Hi-Tec offerings. You get to play the entire gang (including the dog, hooray!) across five enormous, multidirectional levels full of platforms, ladders and baddies. There are caves, a strange dreamy city, a candy landscape, a trippy rainbow zone and a fairground. You have to pick up certain stuff before heading for each exit which means you’ll explore every inch of the playing area fully, and the delicious contrast of damp caves, snow landscapes and gorgeous sunshine means you’ll enjoy it. Baddies can be bopped by jumping on their head Mario style – in fact, ZZAP! 64 had a seizure and declared it to be better than Nintendo’s Italian plumber outings. It isn’t, but it’s an outstandingly polished and well designed adventure. It’s one of those times you just know you’re playing something that the coders gave a damn about.
4. SCOOBY AND SCRAPPY DOO
Unlike Elite’s curiously yellow and decidedly Spectrum-ish haunted house slap ’em up (amazing – Ed) from back in ’86, Hi-Tec’s summer 1991 is a thoroughly modern Commodore 64 affair. You’re controlling Scoob’s nephew Scrappy across this platform game’s four levels. Shaggy and Scooby have OD’d on the Scooby snacks again, see, and you’ve got to find them. You take in a ghost town, graveyard, mansion and dungeon.
You already know what happens from here. Dodge or batter the level themed baddies using your puppy power, jump to the moving platforms and keep going right to the exit. There’s a devilish challenge in this one and a high “one more go” factor in spite of the seemingly pixel perfect requirements from your play. The graphics are beautiful, the inter-level “cut scene” (there’s just one!) is slick af and the sensible multi-load isn’t bothersome at all. Scooby and Scrappy Doo is hard, and if you want to nit-pick it lacks variety, but it’s worth tracking down.
5. WACKY RACES
This is a platform game dressed up as a driving thing. Viewed side-on, you take control of Dick Dastardly with his unfaithful hound Muttley and compete for the title of world’s wackiest racer. You don’t seem to be able to completely brake, so your car trundles forwards constantly and you’ve got to memorise the map and avoid obstacles Moon Patrol style. You can push other characters out of the way with a huge corkscrew on the front of your car, and the action’s broken up with sub games that have you assembling booby traps for the competition. It’s not quite as fun as it sounds, if we’re honest, but original and good-natured stuff.
The Jetsons doesn’t have much to do, but the backdrops recreate George’s workplace perfectly. Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy is similarly sparse, but has some genuinely LOL slapstick moments and wonderfully huge sprites. Atom Ant feels more budget-y than Hi-Tec’s other games, but worth a look for shoot/collect ’em up fans. And Yogi Bear and Friends in the Greed Monster is just wonderful. Colourful graphics, clear puzzles, and a cracking soundtrack. CF
NEXT TIME: in part two, we’ll look at Hi-Tec’s platformer Turbo The Tortoise. Then, we’ll pick out four more of Hi-Tec’s originals. Finally, in part three, the story behind their unreleased games – including the 18 year search for Daffy Duck. Search Commodore Format on social media for updates! Thanks this time to Frank Gasking, Christopher Heppinstall and retrogamegeeks.co.uk.