Candles in the wind (Six Amiga games you’ve never heard of… YouTube video script)

click here for the video version

I’ve written a number of Games That Weren’t articles in the past that focus on single forsaken titles and go into great depth, covering every last detail of what might have been, and why nothing actually materialised.

With some wannabe articles, there’s so little to go on that the measly scraps of information I do have to hand are dumped in a metaphorical shoe box and stowed away under a metaphorical bed to fester. With a few of these embryos of stories now gathered together I feel now’s the time to shake off the dust and give them an airing. No-one wants to read a vacuous article that goes nowhere, yet aggregate several into a collection and you’re cooking with gas! As we tend to do now we live inside.

In April 1990 CU Amiga reported a snippet of news entitled Wombles Sign.

“Again Again have scored a major coup by securing the on screen services of those ecologically-minded South Londoners, The Wombles. The lovable litter-gatherers are currently the subject of renewed interest with their recruitment by the Tidy Britain group to help publicise Spring Clean Day (March 30th) and Tidy Britain Year, and with the announcement that in keeping with the current interest in green issues, Central Television have commissioned two half-hour Womble specials. The first of these will be screened this summer and will feature Orinoco, Great Uncle Bulgaria, Bongo and Tobermory cavorting rather further afield than previously (apparently one of their trips will take them to visit a cousin in the Brazilian rain forests!). The Wombles will be ready tor your Amiga this June.”

The Wombles collaborating with the Keep Britain Tidy charity wasn’t, in fact, a new arrangement. Aside from starring in a collection of novels, a stop-motion TV series entirely voiced by Bernard Cribbins and their own band, they began advocating their mutual litter-busting cause as far back as the ’70s. It was a match made in heaven since this is what the Wombles were born to do – recycle abandoned human detritus and clean up anything else that can’t be. Living in Wimbledon Common, London, they certainly had their work cut out! It’s located in the hub of the UK’s rat race.

June came and went – the Amiga game’s ETA that is – and nothing of a burrowing, furry, long-nosed nature materialised. Not for the Amiga anyway. A Wombles game was, however, released in the same year for the Commodore 64, Amstrad and ZX Spectrum, developed by Enigma Variations and published by Alternative Software. These being trading names belonging to the same outfit who owned the Again Again division announced as having secured the licensing rights to produce the Amiga iteration. According to YouTuber, David Birdsall, the Spectrum version suffered a bit of a setback upon release. A major bug that would cause the hero of the piece to jump repeatedly without any intervention from the player had somehow slipped through quality control checks, and all the cassettes had to be recalled and re-recorded once the problem had been rectified.

You play as the eat-o-holic/sleep-o-holic lead singer of the Wombles, Orinoco, whose mission is to find items of litter and dispose of them in a morally righteous, upstanding, pillar of the community kind of way. You know, by binning it.

You’re also tasked with scavenging broken items discarded by humans as determined by the prodigious inventor Womble, Tobermory, to be incorporated into his latest gizmo. Complicating matters, your pal Wellington – the inventor’s apprentice and academic Womble – attempts to do the same. If he should beat you to the punch, head Womble Uncle Bulgaria confiscates one of your three teatime pies. These are a substitute for lives – see what they did there? You can’t have anyone dying in a Wombles game. There’s probably a law that specifically forbids it.

Avoiding humans and wildlife hazards as you explore Wimbledon Common, your ultimate goal is to find a copy of The Times newspaper and return it safely to the burrow for Uncle Bulgaria’s delight and delectation. He’s a crossword aficionado and obsessive news hound so that’s bound to earn you some extra Brownie points.

It’s a simple, single plane platformer that may amuse very young children for a short while. Personally I’d rather sit back and sing along to the chiptune rendition of the Wombles theme tune. That’s fantastic.

It’s not clear why the game never made the transition to the Amiga, though I suspect the more advanced 16-bit hardware might have exposed the lacklustre gameplay, thus failing to entice more demanding Amiga owners.

I did ask Alternative Software (who remarkably are still going strong after all this time), but they couldn’t recall why the Wombles remained solely an 8-bit title. I’ll forgive them; it was more than a few years ago now.

Another CU Amiga news bite, this time published in October 1991, detailed a potentially more explosive aerial project, albeit one initiated way too late to be considered on trend. If you find yourself getting breathless as your soar through the atmosphere at Mach 1 speed listening to this one, you’ll know Berlin hit the target!

“Donning their Raybans and flight jackets, Mirrorsoft are set to produce a new game based on the Tom Cruise vehicle, Top Gun. The film told the everyday story of sickeningly talented and handsome pilots who trained at an elite flight school. It was rich in stunning dog-fight scenes and nauseating ‘buddy, buddy’ elements. Mirrorsoft aren’t quite sure what route they’ll take with the licence yet, but the chances are they’ll opt for a two-player dogfight game with a few easy-to-use flaps for the player to wiggle. No matter what they decide, though, it will still be better than Ocean’s bog-awful 8-bit game that was released to coincide with the film! No release date has been set yet, but more news as it appears.”

This being reported in the same year co-owner of Mirrorsoft, Robert Maxwell, sailed off on a yacht-based jolly and failed to return, unsurprisingly the game never came to fruition.

The title referred to in ‘The Buzz’ section of the magazine was released in 1986 for the Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, Thomson MO, and ZX Spectrum. Not strictly an 8-bit affair then.

What CU Amiga did get right, however, is that Ocean’s game isn’t much kop. At least, it looked decidedly ropey four years later with its black and white, barely-there wireframe visuals. Given the only thing to differentiate the sea from the sky is a single white line, it was never going to win any awards for its aesthetic appeal.

Like Mr Cruise (and the protagonist of SEGA’s Afterburner) you pilot an F-14 Tomcat. Here we surveil the terrain from the plane’s cockpit in a first-person perspective, 3D combat simulator… of sorts. All the while bopping along to a tune borrowed from another Ocean title, Comic Bakery.

Armed with 20mm air to air missiles and decoy flares you can opt to engage the computer’s AI in a trio of deadly dogfights, or take on a human opponent via the split-screen view.

Successfully eliminating the threat entails managing your velocity and altitude to bring you into alignment with the other dots on the radar. Ultimately this facilitates the player’s ability to lock their sights on an enemy target for the magic three-second duration, whilst deploying heat-seeking, sidewinder cannons sparingly to avoid overheating.

Despite the vitriol spat in its general direction today, C&VG loved Top Gun when first unveiled. Winding up their 90% assessment in February 1987 they decreed, “For head-to-head air combat this is definitely the tops. Along with ACE, they are the most enjoyable flight games that I have ever come across. Sure to be a hit. I’ve not seen the film, but who cares? The game is excellent.”

Robert Maxwell was unavailable for comment.

Next up is a game intended to revolve around The Three Musketeers, a historical-political adventure novel written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas (not pronounced ‘dumb ass’, as hilarious as that would have been). Having long since fallen into copyright expired status, developers would have free reign to produce works based on the recognisable intellectual property without having to pay royalties. Always a bonus considering how expensive contemporary licensing rights can be. This largely explains why there are so many movies and games based on classic fairy tales.

Nonetheless, more interesting to me as a kid was the Spanish-Japanese animated adaptation starring Dogtanian as d’Artagnan, and three Muskehounds as Athos, Porthos and Aramis. It was unleashed in Japan in 1981 and re-dubbed for an English audience in 1985. With mouth-audio synchronisation way down the list of priorities, the bizarre anthropomorphic creation is a surreal, almost hypnotic experience.

Amongst the many things the bipedal, duelling canines taught me is that honour and friendship, something something something. To be honest I was too mesmerised by all the talking pooches waving cutlasses to absorb anything else.

“All for one, and one for all” the article read.

“Yes, they are on their way – those dare-devil Musketeers will be making their Amiga debut in a new arcade/adventure. Graphically similar to Ocean’s Ivanhoe, the game involves buckling your swash and battling it out with various evil forces as you attempt to protect your honour and your country. A number of attractive still screens interrupt the action but very little else is known at present as the game is still early in its development – what we do know, though, is that there WON’T be a section involving boozing Ollie Reed under the table – if there was one, it would go on for too long anyway!”

A text with static images adventure game based on the same source material was developed by Greve Graphics and published by American Action AB for the Amiga in 1987. This is as close as we came to playing the Musketeer flavoured twist on Ivanhoe described by CU Amiga, and it’s nothing worth writing home to Monsieur de Treville about.

In September 1987 C&VG kicked the threesome outside to sleep in the kennel while they mulled over their embarrassing 40% score.

In a stern, disapproving tone, and with a wagging finger, they added, “Very little gameplay is somewhat offset by some effective graphics, in most cases digitised from photos. There is a terrible dirge that accompanies the whole game, but this can easily be turned off, and probably will be. It is not an orthodox adventure.”

In 1995 a more Monkey Island-esque point and click adventure emerged entitled ‘Touche: the Adventures of the Fifth Musketeer’, though only for DOS systems. It’s a fully voiced, SVGA, epic undertaking incorporating a control interface similar to that of Monkey Island 3, yet released two years earlier. It bears no relation to the French, animated cartoon series, ‘Albert the Fifth Musketeer’ released in 1993, and billed as a cross between The Three Musketeers and MacGyver.

In Touche, you adopt the role of Geoffroi (‘shef-war’) Le Brun, and are tasked with apprehending the murderer of William de Peuple (‘perpler’) who was slain in the process of stealing his last will and testament. I’m sure it’s completely coincidental that the founder of US Gold, the game’s publisher, was Geoff Brown. On your crime-busting journey, you meet William Shakespeare, inventor Michelangelo (not a typo) da Vinci and D’Artagnan’s love interest, Juliette.

Could it be possible that Clipper Software’s interpretation of the classic French tale began life as the game first announced in CU Amiga several years earlier?

No, as it turns out. I contacted the artist, Teoman Irmak, who worked on the visually stunning game to pose the question, and he confirmed that the two titles are totally unrelated.

“Interesting! I have never seen this game. It is a completely different game to Touche.

From what I can see, the artwork seems to be done in something like DPaint or equivalent.

In Touche, on the other hand, only the characters were drawn and animated in some software I no longer can remember (long timeā€¦). However, what was slightly different was that all the backgrounds were first painstakingly done in watercolour and then scanned. Very unusual I am told.

I still have the watercolours but no longer have a fully working copy. I don’t even know if it would still run under current versions of Windows.”

That’s that theory thoroughly discounted then. On the positive side, I’ve discovered an intriguing, potential hidden gem I know I’ll be dedicating a hefty chunk of time to in the future. As for the unnamed and undeveloped Musketeer title, that will have to remain in my drawer of unsolved mysteries for another decade. If you have any clues feel free to get in touch.

In May 1990, also in CU Amiga (are you beginning to see a pattern forming here?), it was reported that “Yellowhead Street” had been signed up for a translation of the pixelated variety. They actually meant Yellowthread Street, but since you’re unlikely to have heard of either location I don’t suppose it matters a jot.

“Fans at Yorkshire Television’s ‘Yellowhead Street’ will be pleased to learn that the streetwise police series, which features the adventures of seven unorthodox cops in their attempts to fight crime and survive in the world’s most disorganised city, Hong Kong, has been signed up by The Edge. More than slightly reminiscent of ‘Miami Vice’ and with the requisite dollop of designer violence, ‘Yellowhead Street’ should be making its appearance on your Amiga in the latter half of this year.”

Only it never did, probably because the show lasted for just 13 episodes broadcast on ITV between January and April 1990. Apparently it was a hit with the public and critics alike, and yet somehow Yellowthread Street was still canned and never treated to a DVD revival. It’s notable for being one of the earliest British TV shows filmed in stereo. Beyond that I’m clueless. What was it called again?

Delving back into my musty old copies of CU Amiga revealed another intriguing TV license-Amiga crossover. In June 1990 a pun-tastic, hot off the press story headlined ‘Just a-maze-ing’ whetted the appetite for fans of jumping about in a greenhouse attempting to catch bits of fluttering, shiny paper.

“The licence for the Channel 4 gameshow, The Crystal Maze, is still up for grabs after Virgin Mastertronics withdrew from the fray.

The show has four zones, Medieval, Futuristic, Aztec Jungle, and Industrial – and pits six contestants against the clock at games of skill, strength and wit in order to win crystals. The number of crystals determines the time the contestants can spend in The Dome where they must collect as many golden tokens as possible to win prizes.

A number of software publishers are in the hunt for what could be a very valuable licence. However, the show’s owners, Chatsworth Television, are only too aware about the money that can be generated from a successful licence, and are demanding a sizeable fee. Halina Stratten, Director of Marketing at Chatsworth, told us: “It’s a very hot property. The show would make an ideal computer game, and although we’ve talked to various companies nothing has been finalised. We want to get the best possible deal”.”

Thanks to Chatworth’s procrastination and fixation on haggling, a gaming collaboration didn’t come to pass for another three years. Developed by Digital Jellyfish Design and published by Sherston Software, it was made available only for 32-bit Acorn and DOS systems.

In their gaming equivalent of the popular show broadcast between 1990 and 1995, players explore the various themed zones taking part in challenges of a Physical, Mental, Skill, or Mystery nature. For each crystal won you are awarded five seconds of time in the Crystal Dome. Locked securely inside you get to pluck gold and silver tickets out of the air as they swirl around your befuddled brain whipped into a cyclone by a wind generator. Funnily enough just like the contestants in TV land.

You’d have to hope for Chatworth’s sake that the deal they struck with Sherston Software wasn’t based on royalties, thus hinging on volume of sales. According to PC Format who nailed the game’s coffin firmly shut with a deplorable 21% grade in December 1994, “The Crystal Maze is a hopeless piece of PC software, totally out of touch with what passes as a full-price game. A waste of money.”

Back then I was too busy playing the real thing at Blackpool’s Sandcastle entertainment complex to give it a second thought. Well, technically it was a recreation of the film studio set that enabled you to physically participate in authentic challenges from the show as part of a team. It was genuinely exciting and fun to play as I recall, unlike any of the contemporary, digital versions devised since.

As the Christmas carnival was gearing up to roll into town in 1991, CU Amiga (yes, again) were becoming antsy over the prospective port of a much loved Speccy antique.

“Don’t quote us on this, but news has reached us that veteran coder, Sandy White, is back on the scene. Sandy, who was the innovative brains behind that old Spectrum classic, 3D Ant Attack, is apparently putting together a game plan for an Amiga update of the 1982 classic.

Details are virtually non-existent, with the exception of initial ideas for a larger, more detailed play area and the title of Super Ant Attack, but as soon as we get absolutely anything on this potentially exciting project we’ll report further.”

Nothing further was as it happens because no 3D isometric ants – super or otherwise – were forthcoming. SimAnt doesn’t count because in that you were the ant, and it was in 2D.

If Sandy’s magnum opus isn’t already familiar to you, it’s an erratic, anxiety-inducing action game in which you explore an Antescher maze, desperately searching for your other half. Antescher is a portmanteau of ant and Escher in case you were wondering.

Uncharacteristically politically correct for the era, you opt to play as a boy or girl and must lead the unchosen one to safety before they are eaten by giant insects. Grenades are your weapon of choice, while it’s often more practical to take evasive action instead, leaping up to higher ground out of harm’s way.

Quite rightly Ant Attack is fondly remembered as a groundbreaking trendsetter, one that initiated the survival horror genre and introduced us to isometric gaming. Upon release too critics appropriately lavished it with praise.

Crash! in particular, struggled to contain their excitement, culminating in an 85% review. In February 1984 they explained precisely why they were so awestruck.

“Sandy White is a quiet Scot and a sculptor by trade. His understanding of three-dimensional construction is evident in his game, Ant Attack. Unveiled at the Quicksilva press show, it raised admiring oohs and ahs from the gathering. According to the press release, Quicksilva was so impressed by the stunning quality of the graphics, that they flew Sandy down from Scotland and signed a contract within 24 hours. A patent has been applied for to protect his 3D soft solid routines.

Quite simply, Ant Attack contains the most breathtaking 3D graphics yet seen on the Spectrum; as one of our reviewers pointed out, very similar to Zaxxon graphics, and quite as good as you can see in an arcade.”

C&VG were not quite as enamoured, yet still gushed with praise in December 1983, concluding with a 75% reckoning.

“The ants are horrifyingly life-like as are the movements of your hero. The keyboard controls on the Spectrum are very well placed to enable the easy movement of your hero. Ant Attack is written in machine code and features hi-res graphics which are among the best I’ve seen on the Spectrum, with hidden line removal.”

Undeterred by the 14 separate action buttons required to control your anonymous boy or girl I’d expect C&VG to have rated the game more highly. Then again, logic and game review scores weren’t always the best of pals.

Regardless, the cumbersome control system does serve to accentuate the challenge, boosting the game’s longevity prospects. Perhaps the aptest demonstration of this is the existence of several remakes, one a first-person perspective, complete overhaul.

In closing, I suppose what we’ve learnt on our travels through the land of coulda-woulda-shoulda is that some concepts evolve to become fully-fledged games, and are set free to soar gleefully amongst the clouds. Whilst with others their owners forget to feed them, go away on holiday for a fortnight, and return to find the fluffy bundles of joy lying rigidly on their backs, beak agape, gazing mindlessly at nothing in particular.

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