The Bitmap Brothers: Universe Review

Few outfits are more synonymous with the glory days of the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST than The Bitmap Brothers. Their games were slick and polished, highly addictive, made great use of sound and music, and featured amazing artwork. There was always an air of cool and mystery about them. Indeed, violent future-sports simulator Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe and steampunk co-op shooter The Chaos Engine still enjoy a cult status to this day and rank among my very favourite games of all time.

Documenting the Bitmaps’ story is Read-Only Memory’s The Bitmap Brothers: Universe, an exquisitely-presented hardback weighing in at 360 pages. Starting with how the three founders, Mike Montgomery, Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews, were drawn together by a shared love of arcade games and a desire to develop their own ideas, it charts one of the great successes of the Britsoft era.

Each of their games is discussed in some detail, chronologically from Xenon in 1987 to WWII: Frontline Command in 2003, as are all the key events in their colourful history – the now infamous photo shoot in front of Robert Maxwell’s helicopter that helped propel them to stardom, the formation and then eventual sale of their own publisher Renegade, the struggle to move from Amiga/ST to PC and PlayStation, and their subsequent decline in the late 1990s and eventual closure in 2004.

The book also explores the company’s carefully-controlled brand image, the cosy relationship they fostered with the press, the pioneering use of licensed in-game music, and how they were early adopters of studio tools, level editors and development platforms. Fellow era legends Bullfrog, Sensible and Graftgold, whose own stories closely overlap with that of The Bitmap Brothers, feature prominently in the account.

bitmap-brothers-01Written by Duncan Harris, an industry artist who also runs Dead End Thrills, a website that explores the art of video games through the hobby of capturing screenshots, there’s strong focus on the distinctive visuals that brought the Bitmaps’ titles to life and the backstories and influences of those who created them. In fact, Bitmap artist Dan Malone (of whom I’m huge fan) played a significant part in the production of the book, contributing a wealth of archive material as well as specially creating the fantastic portraits – a fully-geared up Speedball 2 player and the Greek warrior from Gods – that adorn the front and back covers.

In addition, a huge portion of the book is dedicated purely to images. Three sizeable full-colour panel sections feature box artwork and numerous game stills. The screenshots, processed by graphics engineer Timothy Lottes to accurately emulate a CRT display for print, capture the essence of how they would have originally appeared on screen and are some of the best reproductions of vintage game captures I’ve seen in a book. The main text is also regularly interspersed with an interesting array of old photos and original design documents and concept art.

The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is a bit different in style from many of the other gaming histories out there. In books such as Sensible Software: 1986-1999, A Gremlin in the Works, and the From Bedroom to Billions film documentaries, the narrative is almost entirely constructed from interview excerpts. In contrast, Harris has opted to write a more traditional third-person biography; though it has still been thoroughly researched via personal interviews and is peppered with direct quotations from key players and luminaries, including many of the Bitmaps, the musicians they worked with, publishers and marketeers, contemporary journalists and industry peers, and even one of Montgomery’s former bosses.

bitmap-brothers-02As such, it does benefit from a better flow and a tighter structure. However, it feels less like a definitive, first-hand account than some of the other publications. The perspective is largely that of Mike Montgomery’s; aside from the occasional inclusion of archive interview material, Steve Kelly and Eric Matthews are highly conspicuous by their absence. So there’s rarely anyone to cross-examine or provide an alternative point of view to Montogmery’s version of events.

The author also seems just a little too in awe of the Bitmaps. There’s a tendency to overstate their achievements and attribute too much to them, and at a times it reads like a superlative-laden love letter that reinforces the mythology rather than shedding light on the people behind the meticulously cultivated image. The language often drifting into bombast and overwrought metaphors, as illustrated by the following passage:

“From the outset, there was chemistry. The subatomic was becoming elemental – Matthews’ love of coin-ops, Kelly’s experience of 68000-series processors, Montgomery’s knowledge of cross-platform tools and practices – they bonded on a molecular level, forming a unique compound that come to characterise both game and studio.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining and well written, but it’s at its best when it lets the people speak for themselves. I particularly enjoyed the passion with which Malone and coder Rob Trevellyan discuss Speedball 2 and the insight they provide into the design philosophy, graphics, and technical aspects.

bitmap-brothers-03Also, some of the anecdotes are pure gold. With an alarming penchant for screwdrivers, wooden planks and very tight shorts, Mike Montgomery is clearly a feisty fellow and not someone you cross lightly. And it’s always great to read more stories about the late audio maestro Richard Joseph, a truly fascinating person and one of my biggest heroes from the Amiga years.

All in all, The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is a good book and an enjoyable read, let down somewhat by a propensity for rose-tinted nostalgia and a viewpoint that largely represents only one of the three founders. But it’s worth it alone for the superb illustrations. Dan Malone’s trove of drafts, sketches and retrospectives, much of it never seen before, including unused characters from The Chaos Engine and his ideas for a new Speedball, being particular highlights.

The Bitmap Brothers: Universe is available to buy from Read-Only Memory for £30

Author: Duncan Harris

Publisher: Read-Only Memory

Release date: November 2016

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