Retronauts Vol. III Episode 25: (Union) Jack in for 100 minutes of ’80s games history

retronauts 25 uj cover

In the many years we’ve been doing Retronauts (the show is almost eligible to be its own topic at this point), our one big weakness has been our coverage of ’80s UK gaming. This has made many people angry and is widely considered… well, kind of inevitable, really. The British 8-bit microcomputer scene of the ’80s was very specific to Britain; outside of the Commodore 64, all the systems that defined the decade for England never really had much availability or impact beyond the English Channel. Though it would prove to be a fertile ground for major players who remain active today (Jeff Minter! Codemasters! DMA Designs aka Rockstar North! Psygnosis aka Sony Liverpool! Peter Molyneux! Rare!), the actual games that those legendary designers and studios created rarely left the UK.

The importance of the scene has made it a crucial gap for the show, but the insularity of the scene has made it difficult to speak to it with any authority, what with us being outsiders and all. So, for my final episode of this backer-supported season of Retronauts — for which you can thank one Mike Wasson, by the way — I could think of no more appropriate scheme than to rectify Retronauts’ greatest failing at long last by tracking down someone who actually lived in the UK and followed the gaming scene.

Handily, this required almost zero effort on my part, given that Bob and I happen to work with an icon of the ’80s UK gaming press: USgamer editor-at-large Jaz Rignall, who covered the 8-bit micro scene as a feisty teenager back in Thatcher’s England. We did the research for this one, but he fills in the generalities and hearsay with experience and perspective. The result is, I think, one of our best episodes ever (despite so, so many technical issues), a whirlwind tour of a fascinating but (to us) alien facet of game history. I hope you also enjoy it!

Thanks to Jaz for joining in (despite our scheduling the recording session during the World Cup final, sorry!) and to Mike for prompting us to shore up this particular weakness.

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35 Responses to Retronauts Vol. III Episode 25: (Union) Jack in for 100 minutes of ’80s games history

  1. According to what my older brothers tell me, here in Portugal the Commodore 64, Amiga A500 and A1200 and the varieties of ZX Spectrum were very popular (alongside the Master System). I’m not sure how it was with other countries in Europe (a few of them didn’t have nearly the same easy access to game stuff either) but either they were like us and followed the british love of computers or they went straight to 16 bit consoles. All I know for certain is that the Master System was big in general.

    Retro Gamer magazine actually had a section about this. Sure, being a british magazine helps but they did used to have a section dedicated to gaming in other countries in the 80’s and 90’s. Really interesting stuff.

    Side note: Crash had some amazing artwork by Oliver Frey for its covers (Psygnosis’ games too, but everyone already knows that).

    • Yeah, I tried not to speak too much to Europe at large. With so many countries in such close proximity, there was obviously a lot shared across the continent. But at the same time, each country has its own culture, distribution, censorship laws, etc… so we kept the conversation to just the UK. Thanks for the info!

      • No worries Jeremy, I wasn’t complaining or anything like that. This episode is closer to home though so I’ll make sure to try and get my brother to listen to Retronauts with this one.

        Hopefully one day I’ll get to talk about the Portuguese scene (and the rest of Europe) as well.

  2. Andy

    I enjoyed this episode and I remember reading Julian’s work in Mean Machines (and Mean Machines Sega) hundreds of years ago. I’ve also just recently started following him on Twitter, so good to see that he’s still involved in games.

    As a Brit, I actually listen to Retronauts to get a bit of an insight into games that I haven’t heard of, so the US perspective is often interesting to me – no complaints here. Hopefully you found the UK gaming scene as interesting as I find the States’s. If you do a follow up episode at some point, I’d like to hear more about the Amiga and Atari ST era. I find that era quite nostalgic, but I never had the privilege of owning either system. As you guys said, cost was definitely a factor.

  3. Koyota

    Sorry for my slowness here but the intro got me scared, then it seems like things are just as normal in continuing? does the emergence of a new Season actually mean anything?

  4. hal9k

    Registered here because I just wanted to say that was an excellent episode, and I was glad to hear from Jaz on this topic. I’ve been hoping for a while that he’d show up on the podcast. Great insights, and his accent lended a touch of class to the proceedings.

    This. topic was completely new for me, so I found it really interesting and I learned a lot. As a kid with a C64, I feel a bit guilty now that I used the education angle to talk my parents into buying one. As you mentioned, I remember copying pages of Basic from a magazine (I subscribed to one called “Run!” if I remember right) to get a game running. The best I could do was a little Space Invaders knockoff using ASCII characters, but they had some pretty complex stuff in there. I wish I had learned to code or at least type from that, bit I guess I was just too young.

    Anyway, thanks for another great episode, and I’m glad to hear you’ll be continuing it.

  5. JohnLearned

    Very cool episode

  6. Sydney Meanstreet

    An interesting episode, not least because it reassures me that seeing an NES in the UK during the 80s was something of a rarity!

    Picking up on the point about Imagine Software that Jaz mentioned – they were at one point a big name in the UK industry, and certainly they had a mastery of PR with plenty of stories about kids who’ve programmed their way into Ferrari ownership and suchlike. The BBC ended up taking an interest for a series called ‘Commercial Breaks’ and sent a crew in to document the rise of what was surely the future of British industry.

    Of course, things weren’t as they seemed and when they got there they found a company in crisis and the programmed ended up capturing their demise instead. Fortunately it’s available on Youtube.

    The other thing I wanted to mention was about ‘Barbarian’ (known in the US as ‘Death Sword’ from Epyx) – the model on the advertisements was indeed Maria Whittaker, but the ‘sweaty, beefy’ man that Jaz mentioned is Michael Van Wijk, better known to kids of the 80’s as ‘Wolf’ from the UK adaptation of ‘American Gladiators’. Oh, and it was the first game that had the beheading and little goblin guy to kick the head off screen.

    • elliott

      Glad you mentioned (and linked) the Imagine program from BBC. I came to make sure that it got mentioned, it is an absolutely fascinating look at the collapse of a software publisher. Pretty amazing that all of that stuff essentially ended up going down on camera.

  7. I’m not as up on it nowadays, but I do know a decent amount about the history of anime. Thus, I can say that Robert Whitehead’s company (which is still around!) is called AnimEigo. I also know that both the UK and US had a company called Manga Video which, if I remember correctly, had little to nothing to do with each other. This has long been a source of confusion.

    • Thanks for looking that up! But I thought Manga Entertainment and Manga UK were the same company?

      • I may be misremembering. Perhaps it was that the divisions were largely run separately? I do believe, at least, that the vagaries of international licensing led to their often having a series in one territory but not the other. It’s been a while since I last paid particular attention to this sort of thing, so I apologize for being a bit fuzzy.

  8. Honestly, this episode happened to shed a lot of light about the economics and sales of the industry during certain periods.

    Now it provides another reason why the PS1 performed so well seeing that a lot of UK developers were making games for a relatively untapped market. And thus, developers like CORE, Psygnosis, etc got major shine-although the games were rather good as well (Tomb Raider, Loaded, etc).

    The whole arcade thing is completely new to me. Geez, I really feel sorry for the UK gamers. I also didn’t know gambling wasn’t an outlawed activity.

    But what I don’t know could fill a warehouse (That line was for Bob).

  9. geoff

    Loved this episode, coming from Australia the uk scene was definitely felt here with plenty of amiga/c64 support. We didn’t get all the micro computers, we had Nintendo and segas but my amiga 500 always holds a special place, even though you didnt like shadow of the beast as much as I do, it was a dream of mine to have it aknowledged on your podcast. I still listen to its soundtrack daily. Shadow of the beast 1, prince of persia 1 and super castlevania 4 are my gaming loves. Keep it up, love listening to the podcast every week

  10. Mark Elliott

    Just a little point about the BBC Computer Programme. The BBC Micro was created to support the series rather than it be an inspiration to create it. The BBC corporation sent the project out to tender to find a suitable machine.

    If you want to see how it and the Acorn (and Sinclair) companies stories intersected it you should watch Micro Men ( which is a fictional telling of the events of the time.

    And more for BBC computer programmes look up “Making the most of the Micro” and “Micro Live” on YouTube.

    • Alex

      Cannot recommend Micro Men highly enough, really enjoyable. I believe this is what Ray might have referred to, as its working title was Syntax Era.

  11. Mark Elliott

    Oh one other thing. The Jupiter Ace had Forth built in not Fortran as Jaz said. Not that it really matters it was a complete flop of a machine 🙂

  12. Ginger Yellow

    I’d love to hear another podcast exploring the 16-bit British development scene a bit more, with the Bitmap Brothers and Sensible Software and Jeff Minter and Bullfrog. It’s probably more familiar to US gamers than the 8-bit micro scene was, though.

  13. Jonnohay

    Great episode gents. As a 40 year old Englishman it was wonderful to hear this, and you had probably the best guest you could wish for to put in his two penneth. I’ve always been a fan of Jaz and his work, for me he’s arguably as iconic as some of the stuff you discussed. He’s arguably the reason why I became the discerning gamer and collector I am today! Thanks Jaz.

    I owned a Spectrum 48 and 128, BBC, Acorn Electron, Amiga and had access to a mates C64. It was a wonderful time, loading up those tapes or discs and playing a plethora of weird and wonderful games. Some were quintessentially British, my earliest gaming memory was playing Manic Miner and feeling like Id discovered something utterly wonderful. The same with the justifiably adored Elite, which really was a tremendous achievement. There was a great feeling about people being in a bedroom somewhere and being able to code a fantastic game out of nowhere, and this feels like it’s being echoed now with great indie games and start ups coming to the fore. It’s wonderful.

    We had numerous arcade conversions, some good, many bad, but with the tape format, you often had to load each level. And with this not being perfect, I remember many occasions of being stuck in limbo while the tape didn’t load between level 2 and 3, crashing the game and causing much swearing and frustration! Great times.

    Thanks once again guys!

  14. Joe H.

    Great show! And I wanted to say that at least a few of those British machines made it to these shores (well, technically, southern MN doesn’t have shores). My friend back in the early 1980s had an Apple ][ of some vintage or other; I had to content myself first with a Sinclair ZX-80 and later with a Timex-Sinclair Spectrum(?). I still remember that membrane keyboard (Chiclet keys on the Spectrum) and the way that all of the BASIC commands were entered by [CTRL][ALT][SHIFT]ing above the letter keys.

    Didn’t do much gaming (aside from things I wrote myself, or copied out of the back of magazines) because I didn’t have access to the premade cassettes, and the tape player I was using to try to save games was basically crap. You kids today have NO IDEA how lucky you are with your 5 1/4″ floppy discs …

  15. Jonnohay

    After my previous post got my brain awash with memories of this era, I thought Id share more with you guys.

    An iconic game which wasn’t mentioned was ‘Daley Thompsons Decathlon’. It was a competent Hypersports/Track & Field clone made famous by a popular and gold medal winning UK athlete. It could be argued that this game actually raised his profile higher here, such was our fondness for Daley who was a great role model and all round nice bloke. This game is known for breaking the already flimsy Spectrum keyboard due to merciless hammering to build up power in each event, like the aforementioned arcade classics. This was also the case when playing on a third party joystick (such as a Quikshot, which you pretty much needed to play any game properly) and many peripherals were sent to an early microswitch destroying grave trying to beat your best time on the 100 metre dash.

    In 1987 there was a huge hoo-hah over a game called ‘Game Over’. The game itself was complete crap, but it became notorious due to the cover art. You could see the buxom lady’s nipple through her top. The moral outrage crowd were appalled, it was perverting the young boys of this windy island (who were easily able to buy a copy of the Sun or the Star and see bare breasts any day of the week) and eventually the ads and box were redone, but with the offending boob covered by badly touched up art. I was 14 years old, so you can imagine my feelings about this at that delicate age.

    Finally, UK arcades have always been rather tragic places. I recall asking my dad to take me and my friends to a nearby seaside town (which is where they commonly are and were found) for my birthday. He stood bored while three young adolescents bugged him for ten pee coins and excitedly ran from Forgotten Worlds to Strider and the like. Gambling machines have always been popular here and pretty much have been the only thing to still thrive. You still find large marquee machines here and there, but British seaside towns have declined badly in general. I was recently at one of these towns on a family holiday and was really sad to see only gun games, driving games and large cabs. No retro machines seem to have survived, specialist places do exist, but they are very rare indeed. I’m lucky as I managed to get a cocktail cabinet for nothing from a place that was closing down, purely because I had a van and because I was a “games guy”.

    I hope this has embellished your enjoyment of the excellent podcast, and yes, I almost wept with joy when PAL/NTSC was no longer a thing. It just sucks now when I buy old games, but hey, collecting ain’t easy anyway.

    Many thanks guys!

  16. Great episode, guys. I was too young to experience this stuff first hand, but I caught the remnants of it through my uncle who owned a Commodore 64 and an Amstrad CPC (I think). I remember being totally confused at the idea of games on cassette. The Master System was a lot less intimidating so I kind of chose that instead.

  17. Mario

    What was the music used throughout the episode? Thanks!

  18. Joel S

    This was a really fascinating episode. There were certainly similarities between the UK game industry and that here in Sweden, but seems like there were some kinda significant differences too. We didn’t get as many computer brands here, as far as I know. From the late 70’s we got the ABC 80, which was an Z80 machine made by the Swedish company Luxor (who also brought the Fairchild Channel F over as the Luxor Entertainment System), and the ABC 80 and it’s follow up ABC 800 dominated the computer market for a number of years until Handic Software started importing the Commodore VIC-20, which got Commodore International themselves over to open a Swedish office and started distributing the C64. As I’ve understood it the C64 and Amiga pretty much dominated the computer market in Sweden throughout the 80’s, selling hundreds of thousands of machines in a country with only 8 million people, by the late 80’s IBM and Apple started catching up, but the Amiga was still fairly dominant well into the 90’s.
    Nintendo also got established here fairly early on, with Bergsala AB opening up in 1981 and becoming Nintendo’s official distributor for Scandinavia, managing to bring over some Japanese games, such as Mr Gimmick, which were never released in the rest of Europe, or the US. Most console games still didn’t get released here until years after the original Japanese release, but we still got a fair number of them.

  19. Ben

    Just a heads up guys, Manga UK/Manga Entertainment was in fact a British licensing company, with a their U.S. branch opening a few years after their original UK branch (Macross Plus and Appleseed being some of their debut title in the States).

    As for Robert Woodhead, that was a completely American venture he started up around 1989 called Animeigo, their most well-known hit being the fan-favorite cyberpunk series Bubblegum Crisis.

  20. Tomato

    This had better not be the last we hear of this topic. There was enough going on in Britain at this time to fuel a dozen episodes.

  21. Alex

    Long time UK fan of the show so it’s great to hear you guys taking a look at this stuff. To be honest, your explanation in the Misplaced Nostalgia ep explained perfectly why it hasn’t been something you’ve tackled before. I can only imagine how bizarre games such as Jet Set Willy seem outside of the UK.

    The scene really was a product of its time, and as madly in love with it as I was, even I find the games lack accessibility now.

    The Spectrum was huge over here, obviously, but the C64 was also extremely popular – the C64/Speccy playground wars were just as strong and bloody (noses) as the Nintendo/Sega and Microsoft/Sony debates that followed.

    What I’ve always wanted to know is how popular the C64 was in the US, given it was a US machine? Did it have strong game support? It was extremely well supported over here, with most games getting releases on both Spectrum + C64.

    There was a definite lack of support for the NES – I’d often wondered in the past if that was indeed the case or whether I just happened to not know anyone who had one, so it’s interesting to hear it confirmed that it wasn’t just me! The Master System got a lot more ground, and then home console popularity exploded with the Mega Drive + SNES.

    Can’t finish a post like this without citing some favourite games. For me, the best of the isometrics were Batman and Head Over Heels, even if Ultimate had got there first. They looked fantastic ,had brilliant level design and just played so well. Jon Ritman went on to use the engine to make Monster Max on the Gameboy, perhaps something you’ve played?

    Oh, and for the record, the Dizzy series was FANTASTIC. There, I said it.

    • The C64 was pretty popular over here, yeah. I had friends who were using them well into the ’90s, and remember seeing C64 software for sale at most retailers until, say, 1993 or so. The Windows 3.1 revolution shook that all out, but up until that point C64 still had considerable legs in the U.S.

  22. OtherWhiteTofu

    Really good! I’m an american but explored this stuff back in the day (cause it was there) At any given point during the podcast I didn’t think Chuckie Egg, Jet Set Willy, Knight Lore or School Daze would be mentioned, but I was wrong! Melbourne House was a good mention, would have loved a Level 9 talk about their text adventures, Bob you mentioned the Infocom/Douglas Adams crossover, almost all of the L9 games have Adam-esque scripts.

  23. daftman

    I readily admit that I have no desire to go back and play Spectrum, etc., games but man, that was a fascinating show to listen to. Hearing about the personal experiences Jaz had back then was great. I don’t know if the word “rubbish” has ever been uttered on Retronauts before, but it’s a richer show for it now. Lots of vernacular variety in this episode 🙂

  24. econmara

    Last Ninja

  25. yay! Melbourne House!

    The 80’s were a pretty interesting time for video games in Australia. We were being influenced by Britain, Japan and America. We had Commodore 64’s, but not Spectrums. and NES’s, but not Atari’s.

    I also never knew the Football Manager franchise was over 20 years old!