What seems like a lifetime ago now, back when true arcade amusement centres still existed, games developers were falling over themselves to acquire licenses to port popular coin-ops from the seaside to the home micros and consoles. It wasn’t often that the flow of pixelated creativity transpired vice versa, which is why the proposal to introduce the Amiga’s answer to Sonic the Hedgehog to a stand-up cabinet in 1993 was met with such ant-icipation.
First pitched in September 1992 at the ECTS a month before the inaugural Amiga release, Bell Fruit Manufacturing and Gremlin hashed out a deal that would see the former cash till company unleash 2000 customised cabinets featuring an enhanced iteration of the forthcoming, chart-storming “Ninja from the Nth dimension”. That’s ‘Zool’ for all none of you who are still wondering who the enigmatic upstart might be.
BFM – who miraculously remain a going concern today having been operating in the amusements industry since 1963 – commissioned games development studio Attention to Detail to take charge of the project, with minimal involvement from Gremlin. Zool the coin-op was to encompass two player (alternating) gameplay and 100 32-bit levels – more than four times that of the original – controlled via three custom chips, in readiness for an ETA of summer 1993.
ATD – comprising Chris Gibbs, Fred Gill, Martin Green, Jon Steele and Jim Torjussen – were practically veterans by this stage having formed in September 1988 subsequent to completing their studies at Birmingham University.
Emanating from a humble residential front room, the close-knit outfit flourished into a major studio employing 75 people, eventually operating from slightly more capacious converted barns in Hatton, Warwickshire, England.
As a team their first gig would entail developing the SDK for the Konix Multisystem, codenamed Slipstream. Initially this was proposed as an extension of their joystick peripherals range, set to encompass a dashboard style controller with optional flight yoke, motorcycle handlebars or a steering wheel attachment.
Nevertheless, with Atari Jaguar designers Flare Technology onboard – working in conjunction with ATD – the proposal soon evolved into a fully fledged games console envisioned to compete with more expensive 16-bit computers at half the financial outlay.
Before the Konix Multisystem was axed, supplemental to the SDK, ATD were implicated in producing its promotional demos, along with a promising 3D WipeOut style title for the platform. It would have facilitated simultaneous two player action by linking two KMS consoles together, and also supported the Konix Power Chair.
Their ‘Tunnels of Doom’ concept – originally destined for release in April 1990 – was sold to Mirrorsoft. They of course sunk without a trace before it could be liberated, as did their owner, Robert Maxwell.
Several years passed before ATD entered into an agreement to collaborate with Bell Fruit Manufacturing, best known for their quiz coin-op creations. BFM proceeded to nurture the relationship by backing ATD’s patented ‘RasterSpeed’ video circuit board technology, with a view to implementing it in arcade cabinets such as A Question of Sport, Every Second Counts, Inquizitor, Quizvaders, and Treble Top.
In 1994, speaking of the enterprise he co-founded, Martin Green described ATD as “a technology company working in games development, hardware design and Windows business software. We wrote Morph for the Atari Jaguar, and are working on a number of new products for Jaguar and other new systems.”
Casting a sweeping torch beam over the progressive connection to BFM he went on to explain, “A few years back we decided that over-plotting was a complete waste of time, as DRAM bandwidth was so lousy. So in conjunction with a UK Arcade Machine company – Bell Fruit Manufacturing – we designed a system which used sorting techniques to eliminate over-plotting. This technology is being used in the arcade versions of Zool and Rise of the Robots. (btw: ATD & BFM are looking for more games to port to the arcade using the technology). At the moment, the system is primarily aimed at 2D. 3D is being tackled by the big-boys, so we’ve kept away.”
Between 1988, their acquisition by Geoff Brown Holdings in January 1997 (who would go on to become Kaboom Studios), and their ultimate liquidation in August 2003, ATD developed games for systems ranging from the Amstrad, Commodore 64, Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, and Mac, through to the Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Windows and the GameCube.
Some of their most notable titles include Cybermorph (the first Atari Jaguar game), Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis: The Action Game, Battlefield 2: Modern Combat, Blast Chamber, Night Shift, Super Sprint, and Rollcage I and II.
Aside from developing LEGO Racers 2 in 2001 for the PlayStation 2/Windows, ATD designed a coinciding physical interpretation of sorts to entertain the guests at LEGOLAND in Windsor.
Meanwhile, back to the topic in hand. Specifications and photographs of the Zool coin-op prototype were unveiled to the press, and the cabinet was even showcased on Bad Influence, as demonstrated by an excitably animated Andy Crane. Nonetheless, the proposed roll-out doesn’t appear to have materialised, probably due to the unforeseen bankruptcy of the publisher, UPL, in March 1992.
Dating back to the early ’80s, Universal Play Land’s games development arm was based in Tokyo where they produced titles primarily for the arcade, though also the MSX, NES, SNES, PC Engine, and Atomic Robo-Kid for various systems including the Amiga. Whilst UPL have become intrinsically linked with vertically scrolling shoot ’em ups their portfolio extended to titles spanning multifarious genres.
What is thought to have sounded the death knell for UPL was diversification into the Pachinko machine business; a Japanese variant of pinball that revolves around gambling with rented balls. These serve as the bounty as well as the means of winning them. That is once exchanged for tokens converted to cash away from the ‘parlour’ in order to shimmy around Japan’s ‘strict’ gambling laws which forbid the unification to monetary gain.
From the ashes of UPL ‘Scarab’ was born in May 1992 formed by some of its then unemployed staff including Tsutomu Fujisawa. In May 2005 Scarab was rebranded as feelplus Inc. who were subsequently absorbed by AQ Interactive and Liveware in 2010, and them by Marvelous Entertainment a year later. Thankfully the latter are still breathing or this could take all night.
Very little is known about the Zool PCB today and no incidences of the system have been recorded at the collector’s database, arcade-adventure.com. Alas, since only one person there has registered an interest in tracking one down, the trail has seemingly run ice-cold. Even the ROM is missing in action, never having been dumped for use in MAME.
To discover why – out in the wild – it’s such an elusive beast I quizzed one of ATD’s key developers, Martin Green. While happy to answer my questions as best he could, unfortunately Martin was obliged to qualify his answers with “Not sure how much help I can be… Zool wasn’t my thing really.”
Q. How did you first get involved with Bell Fruit?
If I remember correctly – which I may not – they rang us up to get us to help them with some new video games they were trying to launch. It may just have been graphics in the first place. We did a few projects for them before I pitched RasterSpeed to them.
Q. How close to completion was your coin-op conversion of Zool?
Sorry – I don’t remember… I was mostly on the hardware and system software side for RasterSpeed, not the games.
Q. Were any finished cabinets ever shipped to the amusement arcades?
Sorry – I don’t remember… I suspect not.
Q. How did it differ to the original Amiga version?
Sorry – too much time has passed.
Q. How many of the ATD team worked on the port? Who did what?
We had about 25 people by that point, and I can’t remember who did it. I was running the RasterSpeed team…
Q. Do you know what happened to the ROM? Is it ever likely to surface?
Sorry… don’t know.
Q. How did the bankruptcy of the publisher, Universal Play Land, affect the project? Did you attempt to find a substitute publisher?
Sorry – no info.
Undeterred I next spoke to Fred Gill who suggested tracking down Jim Torjussen whose speciality at ATD was programming. Regrettably for both of us he lost touch with him when Jim left the company in 1997 so couldn’t point me in the right direction. When my own detective work hit a brick wall – having approached several other former ATD members to dig for clues – I finally threw in the towel, so here’s where the story ends.
If anyone out there can provide the missing pieces of the puzzle – or is in contact with anyone who worked on the Zool arcade cabinet – I’d love to hear from you. To be continued…