Dossier

Antony "Ratt" Crowther

Commodore Auteur

Antony “Ratt” Crowther was an indie game designer before there was such a thing.

By Drew Toal • February 5, 2013

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.

GoBots

Challenge Of The GoBots On The Moebius Strip

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.

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  • Effigy_Power

    Can’t comment. Busy “watching” “Sex and Lucia” on your behest.

    • Juan_Carlo

      That’s the most random bit of advertsing I’ve ever encountered on this site.  ”Hey!  Let’s spend money advertising the Itunes premiere of a film that’s been on DVD for nearly a decade and that really wasn’t all that big of a hit when it originally debuted.”

      • Effigy_Power

        It has tits.
        That is all.

    • HobbesMkii

      I have that one in one of the side ads, but the banner is recommending that I get locally tested for HIV/AIDS.

      • Effigy_Power

        Is there any other way? Can you get globally tested?
        Also, why is my brilliant joke not getting more laughs?
        And are melons fruits or vegetables?
        So much confusion.

        • HobbesMkii

          I knew that would cause confusion. It’s specifically recommending that I get tested in Rhode Island. The ad also depicts three serious looking young black men staring me in the face, so I’m not sure it’s specifically targeted towards me.

        • Spacemonkey Mafia

          @HobbesMkii:disqus   Not targeted to you?  From your posts, I always assumed you were three serious black men.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

    (insert obligatory wordplay joke…now)  For these games, he was A. Crowther, but someday, he’ll be THE Crowther.

    Also, the gameplay and item designs used in Blagger Goes To Hollywood look almost as nonsensical as Atari’s E.T., only way more fun. 

    But, then again, what isn’t way more fun than Atari’s E.T., I ask you.

  • R_For_Revendetta

    I registered just to tell my ‘Tony Crowther pissed on my leg’ story, but my heart’s not in posting on the Internet any more.

    Suffice it to say that joining the games industry will, one way or another, be the twilight of your idols.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      So you still went to all the trouble to register and to post on the Internet, but for whatever reason stopped short of actually posting the story? That doesn’t make any sense! Give us the deets, yo!

    • Spacemonkey Mafia

      C’mon buddy.  Can’t we lure you in for one last score?  Then you can retire for real!

    • HobbesMkii

      No one likes a tease.

  • Simon Jones

    I dunno. It only really comes off as subversive if you ignore every other C64 game around at the time. Which tended to be all of a very similar type. 

    • blue_lander

      Yeah, odd choice to highlight this guy rather than someone like Jeff Minter or Raf Cecco or Matt Smith. There were tons of British teenagers churning out “indie” games for the Spectrum, C64, BBC, Amstrad, etc.

      Monty on the Run was a great game, though. It has a terrific soundtrack on the 128k Spectrum. The C64 version isn’t bad either.

      • Simon Jones

         The Monty series were all kinds of awesome and we really should talk about the British C64 scene more, especially considering how dead videogames were in the US at the time. It’s just that, yeah, as far as quirk goes this guy was fairly standard issue. I mean, being a kid I mostly bought Mastertronic games and they were all like this.

        • blue_lander

          That seems like the standard formula back then. Make a Jet Set Willy clone and add “quirk”. The Monty games were better than average, though, excluding that weird TG-16 one. Even with all the JSW cloning, there are tons of great, weird British 8 bit games that nobody over here ha ever heard of. Although personally I think the Spectrum has a much better library than the C64 if you can get over the crappy graphics.

          It was sad to see all that weirdness and creativity dissapear from the UK Amiga scene in the 90′s. Seems like after a certain point they just cranked out clones of SNES/Genesis games rather than anything original.

        • Simon Jones

           It was always about the money. It’s just that the successful games everyone started copying tended to be from consoles rather than Maniac Miner.

        • blue_lander

          I found a stack of Amiga Format magazines in a thrift store once,  and  the game reviews consitantly had a tone of “Our Amiga can do anything a SNES or Megadrive can”. Games were judged by how they showed the Amiga as a superior piece of hardware to the SNES/Genesis. They were particulary obsessed with creating a Sonic clone, hence crap like Zool 2 and Oscar.

      • Vonty

        To be fair, Minter is well known and his site has all his history, plus he’s done talks and whatnot. Matt Smith is sadly totally mental and didn’t do much after JSW. Rafaele Cecco is interesting in a Spectrum context, though, but after the Hewson stuff like Exolon and Cybernoid, what else is there?

        My wish would be a proper Andrew Braybrook dossier. He was a auteur god on the 64 and went on to do a near-perfect conversion of Rainbow Islands on the Amiga (as well as 16-bit updates to two of his 8-bit hits), yet he’s as under-appreciated as Tony Crowther and a far, far better game designer. Gribbly’s Day Out was mindbendingly original, Paradroid is still amazing, Uridium is still exciting to play and a superb demonstration of the C64 at its best and Morpheus is the like prog-rock of 8bit UK shmups. THEN HE DID A PUZZLE GAME. WTF. Even Alleykat has nuances that are just sublime (like detecting if you had a C128 and pulling off some beautiful colour-cycling effects)

        Crowther’s best game isn’t even mentioned here – Zig Zag. His other notable was Trap, which had a full proto-demoscene demo hidden in it, complete with awesome Ben Daglish soundtrack.
         

        • blue_lander

          See, I never liked UK Shmups so Braybrook`s output never interested me as much as someone like Cecco. The only game I can think of by him that I liked was Paradroid, although the version I’m familiar with is Quazatron on the Spectrum which I don’t think he did. What’s the puzzle game are you referring to?

           I think I have Fire and Ice for the Acorn Archimedes, seemed like your run of the mill euro platformer. 

          • Vonty

            Yah, Quazatron was his biz partner Steve Turner’s isometric take on the basic design. The puzzle game was Intensity (and is still a great puzzler, kinda like a super-simple precursor to Lemmings): http://www.lemon64.com/?mainurl=http%3A//www.lemon64.com/games/details.php%3FID%3D1308

            He used a lot of Uridium tilesets for it, but that gave his stuff this continuity of visual style that’s really distinctive (and which few 8bit programmers even bothered to care about).

            Braybook also did remixes of Paradroid and Uridium after doing a US/NTSC conversion. The switch to 60hz meant a bunch of optimisations happened, so he went back and sped up Paradroid and changed the colour palettes.

            I think doing Rainbow Islands on the Amiga nearly killed him or something, because his output wobbled after that. Fire and Ice is pretty typical, though Paradroid ’90 is brilliant. Uridium 2 not so much, as it lost that metallic visual style (which Paradroid ’90 retained and upgraded) and just didn’t hang together with the same kind of virtuosity.

            There’s another dude – Martin Walker – who banged out some amazing C64 games too, though only two come to mind. Hunter’s Moon and Citadel. They’re quite Braybrooky, but Hunter’s Moon has some amazing stuff in it for a C64 game. Check ‘em both out if you can!

            (Oh and, if you want to see a top-tier UK shmup, try Armalyte on the C64. It’s trad horizontal, but ticked all the boxes that Gradius/R-Type/Salamander etc did).

        • blue_lander

           I’ll check out Intensity next time I break out the C64, thanks. I’ve also been meaning to try Paradroid 90. I have Paradroid 2000 for the Archimedes, but it never did it for me like the original.

      • http://twitter.com/roundthewheel RTW

        WARNING: GREAT VIDEO GAME MUSIC AHEAD! DO NOT CLICK IF YOU ARE AN ENEMY OF AWESOMENESS

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93nIljXpqUY

  • ItsTheShadsy

    I think it’s fascinating how independent games come in waves. The late 80s and early 90s had a huge surge with the Amiga/Commodore 64/DOS scene, especially thanks to BBSes and Usenet, but it just sort of petered out. Now that digital distribution and Kickstarter have made it viable for small developers to put out games, we’re in another heyday.

    It’s fun to compare and contrast what “indie” games came out during each period. The 80s and 90s were definitely more haphazard and insane, which made them unpredictable, but their gameplay tended to be more derivative compared to current independent darlings like Braid or Hotline Miami.

    • Destroy Him My Robots

      I think your assessment of 90s independent games is missing a little something called “inventing the probably most dominant genre of the last two decades, the First Person Shooter”.

      • valondar

        Precisely. Handful of guys working long hours and they revolutionized gaming. In some senses, Doom is the kind of indie game that can never really come again, because it set the benchmark for pretty much everything on release.

        What I mean is graphically it was one of the best looking games when it came out, the entire thing felt bleeding edge of game quality but how much hope of that is there for any indie dev these days with the enormous amounts of money and time and effort put into polishing big budget titles? All they can hope for is graphically adequate and being well designed – and honestly, the design of Doom holds up all these years later. They’re entertaining levels with different points of entry and egress and I’d take a classic Doom level over most all shooters released in 2012.

        The inability to really compete with big budget titles on the graphics end has lead to a lot of indie games basically going for a retro 8bit nostalgia vibe, which to be honest I don’t like at all. I prefer, artwise, indie games that make an effort to look modern and distinctive and cool. I mean not every indie dev can be Amanita Games, but I’d rather they took a page from Amanita’s playbook than rehash the SNES for the nine billionth time.

        • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

          I think for different values of “best looking,” indie games can sometimes outstrip AAA games by virtue of being more aesthetically adventurous. While it’s not bleeding-edge technology-wise, something like Anti-Chamber is more interesting to look at (and I’d say “better” looking for whatever that’s worth) than a highly polished banality like Uncharted or Call of Duty or whatever.

          Likewise, much of Cactus’s stuff, though he obviously is more beholden to the retro/pixel sensibility, takes that old aesthetic as a starting point, and then pushes it in new, weird directions that are distinct not only from the way pixels were used back in the day, but also forge a different path from the way pixel art was traditionally elaborated upon over the course of game history (i.e. what if, instead of upping the display resolution or color depth, increases in memory and processing speed were put toward weird rotations and strobing effects?).

          It is interesting though, how there was a time when indie games were competitive with AAA games on the exact same terms – DOOM wasn’t “as good, but in a different way” or “better, in a different way,” it was simply “as good or better” than other games at the time. This is probably because, resource and man-power-wise, there wasn’t as big a difference between independent devs and professional ones. Which is probably why so many of those indie devs from back in the day wound up founding their own AAA companies  (your ids and Bungies), whereas, I don’t know if you see that as much anymore.

        • valondar

          @paraclete_pizza:disqus Last paragragh was exactly my point, yeah. The way in particular ID Software’s engines – the Doom and Quake engines and the Quake 2 engine – became standards in the way Crytek et al is today is precisely the kind of thing indie devs can’t do anymore.

          I always liked Cormac’s insistence on more or less developing a new engine for every iD Software title, as difficult a challenge as that’s become and as less interesting as their games have been to me since the early 2000s. But in an industry where simply tweaking an engine and releasing the same game you did last year but slightly better is enough, there was something genuinely admirable about iD Software’s craftmanship.

          And I don’t doubt that indie games can outpace AAA titles in terms of art design – Dream Machine also comes to mind as a game I simply enjoy looking at. I just feel a lot of them fall back on 8bit graphics because the nostalgia factor compensates for them not having to put any effort in. It doesn’t make me love say FTL any less and I won’t deny Hotline Miami looks fun (and being an indulgent tribute to the 1980s is a particularly clever excuse for the graphics), but when I see yet another platformer with graphics worthy of Super Mario Brothers, I mean, what’s the damn point in the age of Trine 2 and Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams?

          I am a very shallow man, is what I think I’m getting at.

        • Simon Jones

           I seriously blame Cave Story for this. It was kind of more influential than the indie kids want to admit.

        • George_Liquor

           @google-ad11b5fc6e812fcfddafc59b953591fe:disqus: Great place to mention a sequel to Great Giana Sisters.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gS9dbUucZFk

        • Eco1970

          This. If I see another sidescrollong shooter or crap retro platformer being raved about in Sawbyck Gamer, I’ll, well, I won’t do much because this is just the internet, but it’ll piss me off a bit.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      A tangent, but a worthwhile one, in this discussion, is the output of Commodore crackers. When they cracked and released games, they typically added these insane graffiti-tag-like intros to the games. And since crackers were coding directly in machine language on already-compiled code, rather than a high-level language, they often squeezed more impressive graphics out of the old hardware, producing psychedelic color effects, pseudo-3D rotations, and weird procedural distortions and particle effects that were sometimes more impressive than most of the games they were tacked onto.

      Contrast that with nowadays (or “nowadays,” as it’s been a long time since I downloaded any cracked software), when you at best will get a readme.txt with some ascii art at the top, at most.

      • The_Misanthrope

         Oh, that takes me back.  The games I got from the distributor in FL were always hit-and-miss, but those intros were often amazing.

        • George_Liquor

          Yeah, a lot of times the intro was the only aspect of the game that worked.

  • Juan_Carlo

    I’ve never played “William Wobler,” but that photo makes it look interesting.  Apparently it is set in an alternate universe where a sentient race of giant earthworms so revere Tilda Swinton that they carved a giant Mt Rushmore style replica of her head in the side of a mountain.

    • Aurora Boreanaz

      Tig Notaro, yo.

      • Spacemonkey Mafia

        She looks like Sarah Silverman’s sister Laura to me.
           A monochromatic, mushed and pixelated version, to clarify.

  • Destroy Him My Robots

    I’ve only played Fernandez Must Die and any satirical aspect must have been totally lost on me. Then again, the only top-down run & gun I really liked was Purple Heart, so I probably just never bothered to find out.

    • Simon Jones

       To be blunt, it’s because the satirical aspect only existed in the context of the blurb.  It’s more ‘Make me an Ikari warriors clone! And give me something to put on the back of the cassette cover!’

    • Vonty

       I once used an Action Replay cartridge to rip the naughty nude sprite of Maria Whittaker from Barbarian and poke it into Seuck’s sprite space and hastily drew a cock that shot sperm, so I had a game design pretty easy to predict. I quickly got bored and changed the cock and sperm into nude Maria Whittaker sprites, so the game was basically a screen full of nude Maria Whittakers being shot by nude Maria Whittakers fired from a nude Maria Whittaker.

  • Andrew

    Okay- Jeff Minter next (this column needs more Llamas)

    • Simon Jones

       I…kinda hate Jeff Minter.

  • George_Liquor

    I think it’s fair to say that guys like Crowther helped keep video gaming alive when the market tanked in the early 80s. Independent developers and small studios continued to crank out quality games on “respectable” home computers when nearly every major corporation had written video gaming off as a passing fad. I have a pretty extensive collection of old game cartridges, and I’ve noticed that almost none of them were published from 1983 to 1985. However, I have a big stack of C64 floppies containing some of the best games written during this weird medieval period.

  • blue_lander

    I’ll check out Intensity next time I break out the C64, thanks. I’ve also been meaning to try Paradroid 90. I have Paradroid 2000 for the Archimedes, but it never did it for me like the original.