Dossier is a survey of one game maker’s creative output—an attempt to tease out the themes that emerge over the course of a career.
In recent years, critics have celebrated game makers who return to the roots of their art, both in means of production and DIY aesthetic. The DNA of 2012’s most memorable games is less Call Of Duty and more Commodore 64. Many share the feel of games created in the ’80s, from the mysterious puzzles of Fez, to the top-down ultraviolence of Hotline Miami, to the grueling, randomized adventure in Spelunky. These games are made to resemble artifacts from the dawn of computer gaming in much the same way that pomaded hipsters try to look like fin-de-siècle bootleggers.
But these polished facsimiles, however entertaining they may be, will always lack a crucial ingredient of their aesthetic forebears: limitations. The pioneers of the 1980s, whose look is newly in vogue, were working with vastly inferior technology and no precedent. Many designers were, by necessity, self-taught, and the output was haphazard and anarchic.
One of the early legends of this bygone era was Antony “Ratt” Crowther, a wunderkind British programmer/artist/composer who became well-known for putting out quality games in a remarkably short amount of time, long before Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström helped popularize a “rapid prototyping” approach. Crowther began making games at the age of 16 and developed something of a cult following, leaving his mark in the annals of early video games.
Speaking of spiny desert plants, one of Crowther’s best-known early games, Blagger (1983), puts you in control of an insatiable burglar who must traverse shoddy architecture (many of the floors degrade and disappear) and fantastical enemies like those aforementioned cacti and flying rotary telephones (“Telephone House”). Working under a time limit, Blagger must collect keys in order to open a safe and escape to the next level. The game’s criminal element speaks to the outsider’s idiom in which early game developers were working—and the theme of blissful theft was appropriate too, since these same programmers regularly borrowed each other’s codes to “clone” games (something Crowther appeared to thrive at).
Blagger is the perfect example of Crowther’s skillful repurposing—it’s a clone of the 1983 game Manic Miner—and it spawned two sequels, Son Of Blagger (1983) and Blagger Goes To Hollywood (1985). The final installment is the most subversive of the lot—you must find a lightsaber to face Darth Vader, dynamite to kill Jaws, and kryptonite for Superman. In a way, it stands as a precursor to YouTube’s innumerable fan-made send-ups of golden Hollywood calves, like this recent reimagining of classic Star Wars through the eyes of newly tabbed director J.J. Abrams.
Crowther’s distaste for the Cadillacs of pop culture is also apparent in a little-known cassette-tape Commodore 64 game called Challenge Of The GoBots On The Moebius Strip (1987). The game was a renegade adaptation of Challenge Of The GoBots, which itself was a transparent ripoff of Transformers, produced by Hanna-Barbera as an extended commercial for Tonka action figures. GoBots were an attempt to cash in on the Transformers phenomenon, and new episodes only ran for one year before reruns were relegated to the USA network’s Cartoon Express alongside Huckleberry Hound and Jonny Quest.
Crowther’s GoBots game resembled Atari’s Defender, where you pilot an aircraft back and forth across the screen, shooting down enemies as fast as you can. The difference here is that your plane (the transformed GoBot character Leader-1) can land and transform into a bipedal robot. The game itself isn’t one of Crowther’s more successful projects, but the supporting manual and story read like something out of Douglas Adams:
Guide LEADER-1 on his most daring mission yet. You must stop the evil Gog from destroying your friends on the planet MOEBIUS—if you fail, not only will your chums meet a death worse than fate itself but the earth will be invaded by lots of horrible green things with an enormous appetite for scooters. Can you save the world? Can you load the game? And most of all can you wait to play this Crowther/Goodley masterpiece?
The game’s special features include a “computerized GoBots book”—decades before e-books became popular—“really ugly enemies,” and “an incredibly smug hero.” Something tells me this wasn’t an officially licensed undertaking.
The hero of Captive (1990)—in many ways Crowther’s finest game—isn’t smug in the least. That’s because he’s on the tail end of a 250-year cryogenic prison sentence in space, and he has no memory of his former life. (Solitary, centuries-spanning space confinement can be humbling, I imagine.) While he can’t leave the cell, this interstellar convict does have access to a computer in some kind of briefcase, which allows him to control four different robots. With these machines, he can search planets for clues to locate and free himself. As they explore the galaxy, the droids collect loot and battle more “really ugly enemies” in alien-infested labyrinths. It’s an intriguing meta-narrative: playing a game through a helpless, imprisoned guy playing a game. For Crowther, who has been quoted as saying he doesn’t much care for video games, Captive might be interpreted as a cry for help.
If Captive’s incarcerated protagonist represents the impotence of games, than Crowther’s 1988 shooter, Fernandez Must Die, is a cartoonishly violent parody of the alpha male ultra-violence that has so recently come under fire from the media and government. Coming as it did in the age of Rambo, a one-man force single-handedly taking down a third-world dictatorship might not seem so outlandish.
As the game begins, you drive into the enemy base in your jeep, running over any grunts that happen to get in your way. But this isn’t Grand Theft Auto, so that’s when the player jumps out and starts doing real damage. The design recalls the spray-and-pray antics of Commando and even Capcom’s Gun.Smoke, with white-pellet bullets flying through the air and gunshots reminiscent of low-grade firecrackers. The plot stands as a friendly reminder of CIA involvement in Manuel Noriega’s Panama:
The dictator Fernandez has set up eight bases to secure the area that he has captured. It is your mission to seek out and destroy all of these bases in order to topple the dictatorship and free the land. Throughout this occupied territory, there are many caches of stolen gold and prisons housing miserable POW’s…Needless to say, there are many hostile soldiers patrolling the land who will object strongly to your intrusion, and do their utmost to exterminate you.
To say your foes “object strongly” is quite the British understatement. In the Amiga version, the end screen reads, “Congratulations, Fernandez is defeated. But now another Republic needs your help.” The game begins again, and the cycle of war continues.
Alternatively, in Crowther’s ending for the Commodore 64, your commando is decorated in awards like it’s the final scene from the first Star Wars movie, covered in glory and bad-guy guts.
As Western governments propped up anti-communist dictators around the globe, Karl Marx’s chosen social vehicle for revolution was floundering at home. Margaret Thatcher’s England was rife with inflation and unemployment, and the working class was hit especially hard. Crowther’s 1984 game, Wanted: Monty Mole, caused a minor stir in the UK when it was released for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, since it was released amid a strike by the National Union Of Mineworkers. (Crowther and Monty Mole co-creator Peter Harrap played up the connection.) The game requires the player, a mole suffering from the resultant coal shortage, to break into a mine and steal some of the black stuff for his family.
It’s a colorful, old-school arcade-style game with a punishing but even-handed design. It seems these jackbooted union thugs will stop at nothing to prevent Monty from keeping his family warm: At the game’s conclusion, we’re told that Monty is incarcerated for his crime. As a piece of social commentary, Wanted: Monty Mole appears juvenile and reactionary (to be fair, Harrap and Crowther were both under 21 at the time), and some might see Monty Mole’s courting of controversy as a marketing ploy for their fledgling publisher, Gremlin Graphics. But it’s telling that the memory of the game has endured even as the miner’s strike is mostly forgotten. It turns out that Wanted: Monty Mole was just the beginning of Monty’s mammalian outlaw odyssey. Crowther wasn’t involved, but subsequent games had Monty being sprung from jail (Monty Is Innocent), fleeing to continental Europe (Monty On The Run), and raising money to buy a Greek island where he can be left alone at last (Auf Wiedersehen Monty).
Crowther’s creative output declined with age, although he continues to work on games as a software engineer. (He’s credited on a few Harry Potter games). I can only imagine that as the industry became more corporatized, he found the strictures chafing. He reportedly left two different gaming companies before the age of 19, over creative differences. Still, I prefer to remember him as he was: a supremely confident l’enfant terrible who puts his own face where the sun should be on the title screen of his 1986 game, William Wobbler.